Wednesday, March 17, 2004

GONE VAGABONDING
IN ALEXANDRIA, MINNESOTA
FROM MARCH 17-MARCH 23

I will be gone to Alexandria, Minnesota, from March 17 through March 23, and won't be posting during that time. In my absence, see your assignment below; you can work at it while I'm away.

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FAMOUS LAST WORDS
While I'm away, visitors will play.

Gary Gilmore's last words before he was executed in Utah? "Let's do it." Some fellow electrocuted in Florida said: "I think I'd rather be fishing." These got me to thinking about last words, then I got to making up my own "famous last words" for various circumstances.

These, for instance, might also have been the last thing said before execution:

"Why'd I ask for fast food?"

"Anybody want me to take a message?"

Other "last words" might occur in other circumstances. For instance, the guy who died saying "Was that your cycle I knocked over out front?" had probably just walked into a bar and was probably talking to an unhappy biker.

The fellow who died saying "I know the language" probably didn't.

Some of the other "Famous Last Words" I've concocted:

"They never attack at night."

"It's safe to eat when it's cooked."

"Maybe they'll listen to reason."

"I think we've got plenty of room."

"Disconnect that red wire first."

"That's just an old superstition."

"Act like you own the place."

"Anybody else care to try me?"

"You're imagining things."

"It's only a flesh wound."

"Nice doggie."

"What train?"


If you care to try it, leave your own "Famous Last Word" entries in the comment box. At some point after I return from my visit to Alexandria, MN, I'll compile the whole bunch of them into a single list (with proper attribution, of course).


Tuesday, March 16, 2004

DESTINATION: ALEXANDRIA, MINNESOTA

Tomorrow I leave for a week in Alexandria, Minnesota. I return on Wednesday, March 24th. Alexandria is 399 miles or 6 hours and 51 minutes from Fairwater. I've been there twice before, once in the very bitter cold of January, 2003; then again in May last year.

Alexandria is like L'Anse, Michigan, in that its economy is bolstered by tourism. Unlike L'Anse, it stands just off an interstate highway (I-94); the interstate highway these days is to the middlewestern community what the railroad used to be: a life-line that helps ensure survival. Of course, you've got to get the folks passing by on the interstate to stop and spend some money in the community, and Alexandria is moderately successful at that.

While I am in Alexandria, I will revisit my friend Floyd Bolin. Floyd is in his nineties, and has moved into a nursing home since we talked last May. He is quite an inventive fellow and built and operated the first dairy in Alexandria to offer pasteurized milk that was palatable; that was his business for most of his life.

People had told me that Floyd was going deaf, that when I talked to him on the phone or left him a message on his answering machine, I'd have to shout.

I knew I'd like Floyd right away from the first moment I met him. I was scheduled to interview him at his house at 4:00 p.m. As is usually the case with me, I arrived a few minutes early. I knocked on the outer door of the porch - no answer. I stepped into the porch and knocked on the door frame of the inner door. The door into the house was open. No answer. I stepped into the house a few steps and through the doorway into the living room I could see Floyd napping in his recliner, eyes closed. The chair was tipped all the way back, Floyd had a blanket spread across his legs, he was holding an alarm clock on his lap.

"Floyd," I shouted, "may I come in?"

"Oh, oh," Floyd said, coming awake. He picked up his alarm and looked at it. He looked at me.

"My alarm hasn't gone off," he said, "you'll have to come back in a few minutes." Then he laughed that laugh of his.

I spent an hour with him that afternoon, interviewing, and found out that an hour wasn't near enough time. I spent another two hours with him a few days later.

When I visit Floyd this trip, it won't be to interview him; rather, a friend will be visiting a friend. That's one of the surprises and one of the joys of this Vagabond expedition: what starts out as research looks an awful lot like friendship before it's done. It happens again and again.

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MORE NOTES ABOUT PLACE (5)

Why does a place tug at us? The comfort it provides, spiritual and physical. It can be home for us, where we choose to live and grow. Its rhythms fit us. We have family and friends there - we cannot leave them. It becomes our image of the blessed world. We cannot leave because we are chained to it. What the land is fits what we wish to be.

We are shaped by a place, some place that chooses us. It becomes for us the image of what the world is and how it should be.

Our sense of place is shaped by our sense of who we are. Our sense of who we are is shaped by our sense of place.

The bias of those of us who live in the north: that what we endure in the place makes us stronger. The bias of those who live in the south: the world is languorous fruit.

What pushes us makes us great. The bitterness of winter is a spiritual pill we swallow here in the north. The swarmy, humid tropical nights are another kind of medicine.

We cannot see a place as it is. It changes with our coming to view it. We bend the grass. Our feet pound a path. The sound of us echoes and echoes and echoes. Animals flee, the birds go quiet. There are human footprints, still, on the moon. The tracks of the wagon trains that headed west well more than a century ago can still be seen today.

Topic for future discussion: What kinds of relationships can we have with a place and what is the nature of each of those relationships?

----------------------

THE TUESDAY REPORT
ON IVAN BURGESS'S ECHO ECHO

(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

You might be pleased to hear that Ivan has given up turnips for Lent.

"I was in the soup aisle at an area grocery store," Ivan also says. "I was looking for a can of soup. I saw a can of bean soup and a can of hearty bean soup. I saw a clerk heading my way so I said, 'what's the difference between bean soup and hearty bean soup?' She said, as she went past without breaking stride, 'hearty is more farty.'"

"Last Wednesday, I kinda got my feelings hurt," Ivan writes. "I was in the Second Cup cafe with Jim Fetters, John Windscheffell, Dick Stroup, Raymond Osborn, Casey Edell, and Dr. Bill Grimes. In the course of the conversation I got the impression that they thought I was lying. And it hurt. But later that day I was in a contemplating mood and I contemplated that they weren't calling me a liar, they were just saying I didn't know what I was talking about."

"You remember the story about Colleen Maydew's wheel falling off her car," Ivan says. "The hub cap off that wheel is now on display at Murphy Auto Repair and Service. It is now hanging in a prominent place on the hub cap Wall of Fame in Murphy's."

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THANKS FOR THE VAGABOND CONTRIBUTION....

My thanks goes out to the following for her recent contribution to the Vagabond Expedition:
#87 Elaine Cavanaugh, Wisconsin

Monday, March 15, 2004

SPIDER IN THE BATH TUB
I dust off this old essay as my contribution to Ecotone's "Spiders and Place" topic this week.

How a spider finds its way into our bathtub, I confess I don't know. The occurrence is common enough, in our house at least, that I have to think these creatures are particularly adept at getting themselves into such situations. They are not, I'm finding, particularly talented when it comes to getting themselves out, however.

Even as I write this, a spider struggles against the porcelain world in which it finds itself imprisoned. It came sometime during the night, was there when I rose this morning, two and a half hours ago. Its day, thus far, has been entirely devoted to scaling the sheet white cliffs that surround it - or, rather, attempting to scale them.

Our tub is of an ordinary variety, twenty-eight inches broad, fifty-eight inches long, and - most telling - thirteen perpendicular inches deep. To me it would appear to be not an especially attractive tableau upon which to play out one's little drama - no food, no water (at the moment), and no hiding place but the drain, no obvious footholds - but I am not the spider and my choice of landscapes might seem likewise as peculiar to him.

So one of the eight-legged wonders of the world has wandered into our tub again and, resourceful as this one is, there it remains. Eight legs, he's discovering, are not legs enough to pull him out of this little mess he's gotten himself into. He knows now, I believe, that there is no easy escape, for he has circled the tub entirely, testing its boundaries, facing steep walls everywhere.

When I first saw him this morning, he was madly flailing his legs, on the theory perhaps that simple hard work would be sufficient to free himself. Hard work, he quickly discovered as he made no progress whatever, was not the answer, as is generally the case in these Sisyphean dilemmas.

If not hard work, then cunning perhaps? While I watched from my distance, the spider appeared to massage two of its front legs with its mouth and feelers, coating them - I assume - with some of its homemade rosin. First he carefully prepared the front-most leg on his right side, then the second leg from the front on his left, testing each as he finished. He employed the two legs he had gummed as anchors, fixing them to the wall of the tub and holding them in place while scrambling about with the other six. He made half an inch progress, as far as he could move with those two legs set; and then his anchors failed him and he slid backwards to the bottom of the tub. And there he sat.

A few minutes later, he moved about six inches toward the front of the tub and proceeded to apply his rosin to two of his hind legs - the hindmost leg on his left side, the second from the rear on the right. Again he rested, and then again he moved himself forward and upward, using the rosined legs not so much as anchors but as the main driving units of his climbing machine. His other legs seemed to move more lightly and quickly, while the rosined ones were brought deliberately forward, alternately, with each bit of progress, and were used for upward thrust. Of course the attempt was only as successful as the previous, and soon he was back the half inch to the beginning.

The next time I checked his progress, he had moved almost the length of the bathtub, crossing above the drain and resting to the right of it, in the corner. His position afforded me an especially good view of him as I set my elbows on the side of the tub and bent to observe him more closely. This, it began to appear, was to be his most ambitious assault yet, for as I peered from above I saw him place each of the front four legs into his mouth (or so it seemed), one at a time, working them in and out, painstakingly slowly in and out, massaging each with his feelers, testing each and applying more rosin when the results seemed unsatisfactory; then he started work on the four hind legs. From my position, I was unable to tell whether these went into his mouth or not, but I noted his mouth was moving energetically all the while, in a kind of sucking motion. Soon he had the hind legs readied.

Very slowly, almost resolutely, he headed upward again, one leg set carefully, then another, until he had gained nearly an inch and a half. The attempt ended in mid-step, when all the legs lost hold at once and he slipped again to the bottom. He sat perfectly still then, and if I were one to attribute human characteristics to eight-legged creatures, I'd venture to say he was disgusted by the futility of it all. I left him to his fate, poured myself another cup of coffee, and listened a while to some Beethoven on the radio.

Since I started writing these few pages, I've checked on the spider's progress every ten minutes or so, to see whether, wunderbar, he has succeeded in extricating himself from his rather hopeless circumstances. Often, as I enter the bathroom, he simply appears to be resting - sometimes in one corner, sometimes in another, or anywhere along either side. He had, I'm convinced, tested every conceivable route of escape. Once, as I entered, I saw that he'd made a snatch of progress by anchoring one hind leg to a piece of grit attached to the side of the tub. Yet even as I stood observing him, that tenuous foothold gave way and he slid backwards. Another time he was running somewhat sideways along the wall of the tub, as if to use centrifugal force to hold him against the porcelain. This attempt, too, was futile.

I do feel a bit foolish every time I descend the flight of stairs from my office to check on his efforts. And, too, I do feel somewhat foolish expending the energy and hours (for I am a slow writer) needed to record this insignificant little tragedy - an inconsequential struggle that matters little to the rest of the cosmos.

I am not one to believe very deeply that spiders and such are inhabited by the souls of our ancestors, nor that I too shall be a spider or cat or cow someday. I am not particularly fond of eight-legged creatures, and have no more empathy for the animal world than most of the rest of men. Yes, I am a meat-eater, a custom I have inherited and one I have thus far found enjoyable. Yet the whole morning I have noticed myself wondering if this is a metaphor for our existence in the universe. Is life a continual struggle to roll the stone to the top of the mountain, only to see it roll back to the bottom, again and again? Some days it surely seems that such is the extent of human existence. Then again some days life seems to hold much more than that.

On my most recent trip down the stairs to observe the spider, I found him motionless, his legs splayed around him. I watched for seven minutes and he didn't move at all. Without apparent reason, then, he moved a few steps forward suddenly, stopped; turned one hundred eighty degrees and moved a few steps, stopped; turned ninety degrees and moved a few steps more. He stood motionless for an instant, then went round in a circle, then another. He was motionless again for a minute or so, before he started applying the rosin to one foreleg, then another. By this time I'd watched his struggle for five hours and here he was, back to the beginning, putting rosin on exactly the same forelegs as when I first observed him.

What sensations had he felt, I wondered, while he sat motionless those seven minutes. What befuddlement caused him then to move first in one direction, then another, then still a third, and finally to walk in circles? What silver thread of instinct told him to start preparing his legs with rosin again, for another assault on the white cliffs that surrounded him? I confess I don't know. I had been content to observe his fate. It was apparent now that he didn't recognize the futility of his efforts. A spider in the bath tub is condemned to one of two, or possibly three, destinies: if he remained entirely undisturbed, he could scramble and scramble until he had no strength left, until he starved to death; or, should one of us in the house want to take a shower, he would end mashed against the porcelain or washed down the drain; or if he were adventuresome to a high degree, he might try his luck in the drain, make his way through the standing water in the curve of pipe, find his way to the sewer and, through a manhole cover, to daylight and freedom. Those were, it seemed to me, his possible fates.

For myself, I know I'd be immensely unhappy to think there is no possible rescue from my own stupidities. How a spider finds its way into our bath tub, I don't know; nor am I always cognizant of the routes I'm taking into silly predicaments of my own. I, too, have walked in circles, frustrated.

As the spider was applying rosin to the second leg, readying himself for yet another attempt, I took a piece of cardboard, got him onto it, carried him to the garage and left him there to fend for himself among the flies and wasps. This action was not - and was not meant to be - consequential; it was simply a personal affirmation of some sort, one made against my intellectual desire to observe the spider's natural fate, an affirmation, perhaps, that there is more to living than the mere avoidance of death. Something. It was a gesture I felt the need to make, the way one raises his fist against a threatening sky.


Sunday, March 14, 2004

RECOMMENDED POST OF THE WEEK:

See Dave's Via Negativa essay of March 11, 2004, "In the Evening News."

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THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE OLD AND THE NEW

Okay, I'm convinced. Blogging has the potential to alter fundamentally the way we see the world.

Yes, the blog is an "on-line journal." Yes, sometimes it might seem like too much navel-gazing. Yes, it creates a sense of community among those souls who connect.

It also allows us to communicate in ways that simply haven't been possible in the past. If you read the letters that a pioneer to Wisconsin in the 1850s sent back to his sweetheart in Vermont, you recognize that a full exchange of letters required about a month, even if you wrote out a response right at the post office and got it in the mail at once.

How long would it take a conventional magazine to put together a series entitled "The Archeology of Childhood: Injury," how long to put it together and to publish it, from conception to printed page? Go over to commonbeauty and see what is being done there: the project was conceived this past week, the "letters" started appearing the next day, we are in Day 5 of the seven days the experiment will take, and the writing is fully as good as or better than that in most of the magazines I read. What is remarkable is not only how quickly the series was created, but the interplay between the pieces, the conversation among writers that is taking place, something that would be more difficult to do in conventional publishing. Go also to my "Recommended Post of the Week" and see that we can get a report on the migration of the tundra swans the very moment they pass overhead, we get a report on their appearance and, more, what their appearance means to the human heart.

Do I sound like a farm boy on his first elevator ride to the top of the Sears Tower? So be it.

For twenty-four years I worked for a printer. In the last years of my service to the company we spent time in managers' meetings discussing "what impact the Internet will have on printing." We didn't see the blogging phenomenon, and we didn't see its possibilities. We didn't see that a really good idea for a series of essays, for that is what the "letters" at commonbeauty are, little essays around a theme, could be conceived and executed in a single week this way. Magazines simply can't execute with that speed and impact. The only thing the magazines have over blogging, I think, is a bunch of really good editors. Oh, and perhaps a wider circulation.

What does this all mean? I guess it means I'm standing here with my mouth open, amazed, trying to figure out what it all means.

Which, admittedly, is not an uncommon pose for me.

----------------------

REFLECTIONS ON BOOKS: #5
SANDILL SUNDAYS AND OTHER RECOLLECTIONS

by Mari Sandoz
University of Nebraska Press (1970)

It is always a joy to find a book you didn't know about by an author you love. Such was the case when I pulled Sandhill Sundays and Other Recollections off the shelf in a used book store in Alexandria, MN, last spring. More Mari Sandoz, only $8, hardcover.

I have admired Mari Sandoz so much, but hadn't ever enumerated for myself what I appreciate about her work. Now Sandhill Sundays is an opportunity for me to think such thoughts. What do I admire?

Mari Sandoz can tell a story. It might be a big one, such as her father's, told in Old Jules. It might be the smaller stories in Sandhill Sundays, true stories of real lives. Sandoz has not tried to disguise life as fiction, as so many writers want to. Do they do this out of fear that real life isn't as interesting as imagination? I ap-preciate that Sandoz makes real blood pulse and sing.

What does Sandoz do that the rest of us can learn from? She allows the facts of those Sandhill lives to take the shape of story. In her telling, something changes; it is not a static picture she draws. With but a few bold strokes, she can re-create the people she knew. We can see them in front of us, we can tell how the lack of rain in those hills has strained them. She has a good ear recalling their conversations; we are in the corner with her, eavesdropping. She lays in the judicious details of setting and situation and we always know where we are. She is selective about what she includes, still it's hard to detect what might be left out.

Of course Sandoz was writing history: very consciously in some cases; not so consciously in others. With Cheyenne Autumn, she clearly set out to do history, didn't she? By contrast, the recollections in Sandhill Sundays come out of that cusp between personal experience and historical event; and I like that Mari Sandoz helps me to recognize again and again: writers have a place in that strange margin. Every day we get up; history unfolds around us: someone ought to be paying attention to the small details of it.

I like that Sandoz locates herself somewhere between the grassy rootedness the native feels and the surface shine the tourist takes away. She was born to the Sandhills, she belongs to them; yet she was able to step back and lay out what she saw – the beauty of it, and the warts. That's a challenge - to belong, so that you know the place, yet to let go so you can write of it. I face that challenge every day and Sandoz shows me how to handle it.

I like to say: I want to write so that a thousand years from now any visitor from another planet can read me and know who we were. That's how Mari Sandoz wrote.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

SATURDAY'S POEM
----------------------
THE MORNING PORCH

by Dave Bonta


Out on the porch at 4:00 a.m.
to watch the snow melt.
You laugh, but listen:
the fog came and went.
Lifted,
returned. You
can ask the moon.

*

A raccoon thought it
was the only one awake.
"Hey!"
The two of us can't be
alone on one porch.

*

Before the snow came
to stay, I had visitors.

Dave Bonta is a lightly employed environmental activist who lives on a mountaintop in the Ridge and Valley section of Central Pennsylvania (upper Juniata drainage). He has had poems in Pivot, The Sun, Wind, Frogpond, West Branch, Birdwatcher's Digest, and Studies in Contemporary Satire, among others. In one twelve-month period, he received 47 rejection slips in a row. Bonta has completed two collections, companion volumes entitled Spoil and Capturing the Hive, which are available for download from his website. With a background in self-publishing (including four poetry chapbooks), Bonta says he finds blogging by far the most rewarding way to reach readers while amusing oneself. "Not only is sending stuff out a time-wasting chore, but even if someone accepts it, by the time the damn poem appears in print I'm just not that excited about it any more!"

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A NOTE TO THE POETS OUT THERE
I'm interested in considering your "poems of place" for publication in The Middlewesterner's "Saturday's Poem" feature; send two or three of your best in the body of an e-mail addressed to tmmontag@dotnet.com . Put "Saturday's Poem" in the subject line. Then be patient. I will get back to you about whether I'll use your work or not. Send along a short biographical note and information about where your books can be purchased and I'll include that when your poem runs. There's no payment involved for having your work appear in "Saturday's Poem," but the feature is seen by some high class readers. About sixteen of them, by our current count.

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A SMALL POEM
IN MEMORY OF
CID CORMAN

by Tom Montag


Suddenly
silence - his house,

oh, his absence.

---------------------

from
THE MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
MARCH 13, 1998


Sweet home. Sweet morning. The day is overcast, cold. The snow remains vigilant, looking for any cranny to drift into. Life repeats itself day after day, with just enough variation that my day is somewhat different from my grandfather's. Still it was a golden chain of moments that brought me here. I'm sitting in a cold vehicle with the heater running, waiting for the engine to warm up before I head off to work.

There are snowbanks along the curbs in Fairwater again. We'd thought they were gone. The Grand River is still flowing freely, though the pond is frozen over again. I wouldn't walk on that ice, however. I suppose the robins are surprised!

The ugliness stands out this morning, the snowdrifts soiled by what the wind has picked up from the fields.

Now it seems to be snowing again. Snow dances across the road. Heavy snow hits the windshield. This is not Atlanta. Like a magician, the snow makes a line of trees disappear.

Good morning, Wisconsin!



Friday, March 12, 2004

LATE-BREAKING SADNESS:
POET & LITERARY SAINT CID CORMAN HAS DIED

Page revised: 9:45 a.m. CST

I am saddened indeed by the death of poet Cid Corman; we in the realm of poetry have lost a good companion. This is the message I just received from Charles Sandy in Japan, via Nancy Rafal in Wisconsin:

Dear Friends and Family ...

It is with great sadness that I write to tell you of Cid's passing from
this earth. He died peacefully, an hour ago, at 6:00 pm, March 12th,
2004. I have no words to share with you now beyond this, beyond
what Cid has already written:


Like saying goodbye
saying nothing. Be
held by letting go.

. . .

OF

So many days and
so many nights ex-
act infinity

The petals of the
flowers of an in-
dissoluble light.


GRACE NOTE

"The friends
more to me
than my song"

What song
is there
without them?

...

How far
we've gone you
can see by

how nearly
together
we are.

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FEATURE OF NOTE:

Stop and see commonbeauty's current series, "archaeology of childhood: injury." I'm to take part in it: it has taken off at quite a clip, I'm afraid it'll be difficult for me to keep up. But what a ride!

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IT'S THAT YOU WRITE
IT'S THAT YOU WRITE OFTEN,
WRITE FAST, WRITE WITH HEART


Recently Poolagirl and I were exchanging e-mails about writing. I found myself saying, "Yeah, it's THAT you write. You write and write and write, trying to find that which you were put here to write. Eventually, you find it, but you don't know it, you don't know it right away at least, so you go on writing. You have to."

Then I'm talking to myself, turning over in my mind some of what I believe about writing. I believe:

If you want to write, you should be writing already.

If you don't have a specific "project" right now, you should be keeping a journal.

You should write often, write fast, write with heart.

You should write down what you're seeing, hearing, tasting. Color, tone, texture. Turn and sweep and drop. Capture the whole swirl of it.

You should write as if you are trying to explain us to aliens who find your notebooks a thousand years from now.

If you're afraid what you write won't be very good, remember that at LEAST ninety percent of writing is re-writing, revision, re-vision.

The other ten percent of writing is perspiration.

There are no good first drafts. The people who say there are - they're either lying or lucky.

If you don't know what to write about, harness your obsessions. What do you love and pursue endlessly? Write of that first; then write of what adheres to it.

If we pay attention, what we need to write about will find us. We don't want to make so much splash in the water that we scare it off.

There are examples of good writing everywhere in the blogs on the list of blogs I read. I am astounded by the very high quality of the writing at every turn. Even though I know the answer, I ask myself: how do these bloggers learn to write so well while writing so fast? The answer: they practice. They practice, practice, practice. They might say it's fun, but they perspire, I know they do. For a great example of good writing, look at Via Negativa Dave's March 11th piece about the tundra swans. On Sunday I'm going to name that piece my "Recommended Post of the Week."

-----------------------

from
THE MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
MARCH 12, 1998


You cannot go away, you simply cannot. Nothing will be the same when you return. Today is clear and cold. There is snow on the ground, quite a lot of it. A blizzard passed through while I was gone. When I left, it had been spring - woolly bear caterpillars and fat robins. It is not spring now. A skin of ice on the pond again. Stiff fingers to clear the windshield.

You cannot go away, you will not be the same when you return. Where you have been, what you have seen, these will have changed you.

What do I see today? Long shadows of the gravestones in the Fairwater cemetery. Ditches drifted full of snow, or nearly so. A world that has its cap pulled down over its ears. Dirt in the snow drifts. Fields brushed by the wind - like a dooryard swept smooth with a broom. A bright dome of blue, blue sky. Red barns and white houses. A cat dead on the road. Salt stains on the asphalt. A world I love. Home.


Thursday, March 11, 2004

HERE IT COMES!

The sandhill cranes have been back for a week and a half. We saw our first robins of the season, five of them, as we walked yesterday towards evening. I think that fellow in L'Anse, Michigan, was right: winter's back is broken!

----------------------

THE VAGABOND TALKS
AT RIPON COLLEGE
ABOUT HIS TRAVELS


Yesterday afternoon I spoke to Joe Hatcher's class in Small Towns & Small Town Living at Ripon College, Ripon, Wisconsin. This is the second year that Joe has invited me to be a guest speaker at the class. Last year when I spoke, I had barely started my expedition, I had visited only three of my focus communities. This year, I didn't have to say "what I'm gonna do" in the future, I could start talking about what I've found.

Here's the basic outline of my presentation.

~ Genesis of the idea for the Vagabond In the Middle: it developed out of working on my memoir about growing up on an Iowa farm. I'd wondered if the strengths and characteristics I was seeing in the people of Curlew and Palo Alto County were common across the middle west; and how would I prove that.

~ Defining the project:
- Mapping the area: my definition of the middle west starts with a narrow strip on the western edge of Ohio (roughly the 84th Meredian) and continues west to the 100th Meredian or where the Missouri River comes into South Dakota, whichever you prefer. On the north, it starts at the Canadian border. On the south, it stops about the 39th Parallel. I haven't found anyone with an opinion on the topic who agrees with me, but I stand by my rationale: it starts where the tall grass prairie once stood in western Ohio and stops where the mixed grass prairie turns to short grass exclusively.

- Selecting the communities: I chose one community in each of the 12 states that fall within the boundaries of my definition; they would become "focus" communities that I'll get to know better over the next five years. These communities needed to have: a newspaper that publishes once or twice a week, a public library, and a historical society. If it had some other claim to fame, so much the better - e.g. Rugby is the geographical center of the North American continent, Vandalia is the end of the National Road.

- The essential questions I ask come down to these: Why are you here? What are the current conditions and future prospects of the community? What are the three or four adjectives that describe the charateristics of the people of the community?

Then I read to the students from my notebooks: (1) pieces I wrote while driving to my focus communities; (2) pieces about the talk I've overheard in restaurants - see an example from L'Anse, Michigan here; and (3) pieces about the people I've met and interviewed - one from each of the institutions that Ivan Burgess of Smith Center, Kansas, believes is essential to a community's survival: good schools (Richard Lavik, former school superintendent, Rugby), good banks (Murray Lull, Smith Center, Kansas, president of the Smith County State Bank), and good medical facilities (Shep Sheppard, Smith Center, retired surgeon).

And, finally, I took questions, ones such as these.
~ Which community is the most interesting to you? They are all interesting, they all differ, and each gives me something the others don't. In addition, the biggest surprise: what started out as a research project turns into friendships. If I were an anthropologist, you might say I've "gone native." I think it is okay to love the part of the country you write about, and the people of it.

~ How is your relationship with the communities going to change when you publish the book? Th question was asking if I'm going to tell the truth and what will be the consequences of that. That's a question I have struggled with. How do you criticize those you love. I have promised myself that I'll tell the truth. My solution is to say "we" when I criticize, so as to include myself among those being criticized; and to use examples of my own failings where appropriate.

~ How do you support yourself? (1) Eight-six people have made donations to the effort; and (2) my wife keeps us in groceries and medical insurance, she keeps the wolf away from the door.

~ How will you know when it is time to stop doing research and put the material together as a book? In my experience, the material will tell you. When I visit my focus communities and start coming home with the same old thing, nothing new, that's a sign that I've gone as far as I need to, it's time to make it a book.

Ah, it was exciting to be standing at the front of such attentive students and talking about work that I love! Is this a dream job or what?

---------------------

VAGABOND COLUMN: #4
BREAKFAST AT THE RUGBY SALE BARN


I was in Rugby in January. It was c-c-cold, 20 below zero for several days running. As I stepped out of my motel room heading for breakfast, so did the fellow next door. He had a piece of lathe with orange paint on one end of it; he was using it as a walking stick. He was wearing a pair of insulated coveralls. He said he was going to walk several blocks west along Highway 2 to the Rugby sale barn for breakfast at the cafe there, as he often did on sale day, Thursdays. He said if I liked good food in a place that wasn't very fancy, I should have breakfast at the sale barn too.

Turns out the fellow's name is Clayton Olson, turns out he is nearly 80 years old, turns out he is the father of Therese Rocheleau, the woman who operates the Oakwood Inn motel where I was staying.

I cleaned out the front passenger seat of my car to make space for Clayton and gave him a ride to the sale barn. He seemed a little reluctant to take it, as if riding were immoral when you could just as well walk. It wasn't that cold, after all.

Originally from Brookings, SD, Clayton re-settled near Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, where he had farmed and where he still lives. He was staying in Room 31 at the Oakwood for the winter at the insistence of his daughter so he wouldn't have to cut and split wood all winter to heat his cold Minnesota farmhouse.

So Clayton was in Rugby, I was giving him a ride to the sale barn for breakfast, we were talking about books. He likes to read, especially Louis L'Amour novels. There's a fellow from northeastern North Dakota who also writes westerns, Clayton told me, "I can't remember his name, but he's no Louis L'Amour...."

The biscuits and gravy that Clayton wanted to order were all sold out by the time we arrived so he settled for hashbrowns and toast and sausage or bacon. I ordered my usual - two eggs, two pancakes, two sausage patties. I ended up giving Clayton a copy of my memoir, Curlew:Home, then later in the afternoon as I was talking to Therese Rocheleau she told me: "Dad must be reading your book already. He said you ordered the same breakfast this morning that you ordered on page 13 of the book."

We talked over breakfast, Clayton and I did, about the project that brought me to Rugby, my exploration of what makes us middle western. He enlisted the help of our waitress and others in the cafe to start a list of people from Rugby I should talk to. When we finally pushed our empty plates away, Clayton insisted on buying my breakfast. I don't like to try arm-wrestling the tab away from fellows like Clayton: I know that, while these old men no longer have the strength they used to, slyness trumps brute force every time. So I let Clayton pay for breakfast and I gave him a copy of my book.

When we stepped into the hallway of the sale barn, Clayton introduced me to the main auctioneer at the place, Ron Torgerson. I knew I'd write an essay about the sale barn someday, and Ron Torgerson would be at the center of it, so I got his phone number. Clayton also introduced me to a cattle buyer and farmer, Ken ("I'm a farmer first") Mattern, and I got his phone number too.

Then Clayton and I watched cattle sell for a few minutes. A younger fellow was doing the auctioneering early in the day, selling the less desirable cattle, the old cows and those not properly finished. "Watch those two buyers standing there at the edge of the ring, off to the side," Clayton told me. "When one of them makes a bid, he barely moves his hand." I watched. I saw a hand just flicker with movement; the fellow was bidding on the cattle in the ring. Another buyer - sitting front and center with a little bit of plank table in front of him - just barely nodded his head, just barely thought about nodding his head; he was bidding too. It was this flicker of hand versus that slightest nod til one of the fellows looked away. The bidding was over. "SOLD!" the auctioneer called.

Clayton and I went back to our motel, to get on with our respective days.

----------------------

TO THE FAMILY, GRIEVING:
ON MY BROTHER RANDY'S DEATH
BEFORE HE TURNED 21

from Middle Ground (MWPH, 1982)

The place he lives still is somewhere between
our guts & our grieving. Only stones fill in
where hearts have been torn out. The wounds will close,
slowly; will leave these deep scars we can touch,
remembering him. He was larger than
we are, and his heart fit his size: he would be
the last to curse the wide curve of road
which took him, taking it. Instead, he would laugh:
"By God, didn't I finally meet my match."


Wednesday, March 10, 2004

WHY "MIDDLE WEST?"

Taken from an interview conducted by Christine Townsend for an article about my reading last October at Sturm Memorial Library in Manawa, Wisconsin. Read the entire interview here.

CT: Why do you say "Middle West," rather than the conventional "Midwest?"

TM: I say "middle west" - no caps - because I want people to stumble over the words and notice them. I don't capitalize the words because middle westerners don't call that much attention to themselves. "Midwest" is a clipped quick two syllables; it is too easily dismissed. Well - I don't want the middle west to be so easily dismissed. I want people to pay attention. And using "middle" as I do, I am also drawing attention to an essential part of who we are, our middleness: we are at times mild and grey, certainly we're polite and moderate and generally conventional. "Middle" makes reference to such qualities in a way that "Mid-" does not.

---------------------

from
THE MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
MARCH 8, 1998


It is afternoon. I am sitting in the Atlanta airport. Outside, the day is sunny, but cold. Here, in Terminal South, life is interesting. If you sit in the airport of a major city for long enough, you will see everything. If you sit in Atlanta's airport for ten minutes, you'll see enough to make you wonder "How much more could there be?"

I have eaten a Dominoes 6" pizza. I have had two scoops of ice cream. I have listened to a couple of men nearby trading dirty jokes. And now I am sitting near two men with closely cropped hair speaking a foreign language I have not identified. Either they are soccer players from a middle European country or they are terrorists. Actually, they look too old to be soccer players.

Sitting here you can think about place - life comes and goes past this chair at a tremendous pace. I notice that some people will wear anything in public. Tall and short, thin and thick and very thick, black and white and all shades and colors between. There is nowhere along my drive to work at home to see life of this pace and variety.

I am intrigued by all the possible stories that might be walking past me: business travelers in their suits, young adventurers with duffel bags and torn blue jeans, black security guards, pilots, women traveling alone with young children. The children themselves - what do they think of this? Old men with flowing grey locks.

I give $15.00 to a young black fellow who says he lost his ticket last night on a two hour layover from Florida to Carolina. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. Good story. Good acting. It is worth $15.00 to see his jaw drop when I hand him the bills.

You won't see any of this between Fairwater and Ripon on my usual drive to work.

----------------------

from
THE BIG BOOK OF BEN ZEN


Ben does the math -

The unusual
Counts for two.


Tuesday, March 09, 2004

IS IT A DUCK?

It was commonbeauty who observed, in a comment left recently at Via Negativa: "I find it incredible that a community spontaneously forms itself within the vast universe of the internet, which is so full of websites and pages and words that you would consider it inimical to anything but navel gazing or casual intellectual intercourse."

Think about it: out of all the possible gatherings, like-minded people find each other and form a "community" with no pre-established rules, but with certain courtesies; no pre-established requirements, but with common interests. These people treat each other with respect. Humor flows freely. If a word of support is needed, it's offered.

It seems to differ from the communities I focus on in my Vagabond project, in that:

(1) This is a clustering together by choice.

(2) It doesn't have a physical center nor physical presence, i.e. members can be anywere; for instance, I visit and comment at Ivy is here; Ivy is in Ireland these days.

(3) Interactions seem serial rather than simultaneous, i.e., comments come one after another, as opposed to the simultaneity of exchange at a church supper or town hall meeting.

(4) Members don't always have a name nor a face (I don't have a clue to commonbeauty's name, nor ntexas99's at Brain Crayons, but both have real-life presence that comes through their words.

Despite such differences, there does seem to be a community here; you might ask yourself, for instance, "what is Dave gonna say about that?" You might worry if Lorianne hasn't put up post yet today, has she collapsed under the stress of writing her dissertation? You might wonder how the newspaper feature about Beth's blog is going to turn out. How is Fred's cold? How is Kathleen's smashed hand?

If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, maybe it's a duck? Maybe it's a community? Can it be? Even if we don't necessarily know each other's names? Or is it no more than a "virtual social club" of some sort?

I'm too new to it - only a month - to have any real answers, but I will say that sometimes it seems that what you're getting here is a lot like friendship. Can it be?

What do YOU think?

----------------------

THE TUESDAY REPORT
ON IVAN BURGESS'S ECHO ECHO

(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"Boy," Ivan writes, "it's nice to be old and be able to say anything you want even if it is not politically correct. In my seventy plus years I have discovered three things keep a small town going - the three are good banks, good medical facilities, and good schools. If a town has those three things it can survive. Which one is the most important? Well, it's like a three-legged stool. Which leg is the most important on a three-legged stool?"

*

"Casey Edell really knows how to hurt a guy," Ivan writes. "Last Monday morning at the As the Bladder Fills Club I was wondering if the batteries in my golf cart would last the summer. Casey bluntly said, 'the batteries in that golf cart will outlast you'."

*

Ivan called Davy Winkleman about the Cedar High School mascot. "Davy said the Cedar High School team was called the Bulldogs," Ivan reported. "We won't even go into what a Lady Bull Dog would be called."

*

"It's no wonder middle America is obese," Ivan says. "All we do is attend soup and pie suppers, church pot luck suppers, and school fund raisers. Why don't somebody have a celery and salad supper?"

---------------------

from
THE SWEET BITE OF MORNING
Plain Poems: A Fairwater Daybook



March 8, 2001

A sour sky far off
where the wind blows in from.
Snow across these prairies -

some stays on the road,
some runs for Michigan.


Monday, March 08, 2004

NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS:
FEBRUARY 28, 2004
LEAVING L'ANSE


I packed the car for the trip home, then headed downtown this morning for one last breakfast as Shabee's Cafe. There was only one fellow in there when I went in, in the middle of enjoying his omelet. An older man came in, sat himself down over where the fellows gather for morning coffee. He ordered tea.

One thing I've found here in L'Anse, even tough men will order tea instead of coffee, and they'll order chocolate milk too. I haven't seen men ordering tea and chocolate milk in any of the other communities; of course, it might simply be that I'm not in the right place at the right time - I'd be the first to admit that.

The fellow halfway through his omelet picked up his platter and cup and moved over to where the old man had sat down. "I want to talk basketball," he said.

The old man had been to L'Anse's game in Iron Mountain the night before. "You know the B team lost again," he said. Apparently the B team had gone undefeated up til the past two games. "They got to thinkin' they were unbeatable."

A fellow from Bianco Plumbing came in, he got himself a menu and was looking it over before the waitress could get to him. Another fellow and his daughter came in and sat in the booth next to him.

"Yeah, I'm waiting for my phone to ring," the plumber said. "I'm on call today."

There is more talk of basketball. A middle-aged fellow with a walker comes in and takes a third booth. "How you doin' Tom?" someone asked him.

"I couldn't be better," Tom said. "I getting out and around now, I'm seeing people, they feel sorry for me, I've got money in my pocket. I couldn't be any better." That was about when I noticed the lower end of one of his pant legs was dangling empty.

The waitress brought him coffee. "You might as well bring another cup for her," he said, nodding at the empty side of the booth, "she'll be coming along very shortly."

Sure enough, she did. I had seen her in there several times before.

Sure enough, the table where fellows gather for morning coffee had filled up and they were talking politics now. One of the fellows was not very happy with President Bush. "We gotta get him out of there," he said.

"I don't know if anyone else would do any better," someone else said.

"Ted Kennedy already has too much to say," said a third man a little later. I'd been listening to a different conversation and missed the thread of connection.

A fellow came in past my booth and said "Good morning" to me. It's true, these are friendly people. The cafe is pretty well filled up with friendly people by the time I finish my breakfast and pay up. Some of them are talking from table to table.

I'd love to stay and eavesdrop some more, but it's time to head south towards home. It's been a lovely week. Beautiful weather. Friendly people. Yet as with every journey, it's good to go home. I'm ready.

---------------------

from
THE MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
MARCH 8, 1998


I am walking the streets of Atlanta this morning. I stop at Georgia State University, in front of the Baptist Student Union. A sign in the window says "Christians Rock the House." The sign in the other window says "Jesus Saves." Fortunately I do not need saving today.

A fifteen minute walk away and I am standing near Atlanta's "24 Hour Dance Club." It is Sunday morning. It is 10:00 a.m. It is time for church. And up and down Peach Tree Street there are all manner and variety of churches, historic and beautiful churches.

The 24-hour dance club is in an old three story brick building, a former warehouse, perhaps. The heavy bass and the drum beat are loosening the mortar. On the down beat, you can almost see between the bricks. A wail of voice cries out, escapes the building. More bass and drum. The sidewalk almost shudders. Another wail of voice crying out on a Sunday morning. Bleery-eyed dancers must be holding each other up, praying to their various gods for relief, for sweet relief. Another shudder of bass and more drum. I think: "It's good to be alive this morning, and sober."

Later, two girls are walking up Peach Tree Street towards me, carrying boxes. They're white girls. The boxes are big. The red-head is smoking a cigarette. She says "I was f-'d up last night, y'all."

*

Cajun food in Atlanta. The man behind the counter is hawking his chicken. "Try some world famous chicken," he says. "World Famous Bourbon Chicken, just like New Orleans. Try some chicken." He sounds Cajun. He pronounces "chicken" like he's got something rolling around on his tongue. You try it - soft boil an egg and put it in your mouth. Now say "World Famous Bourbon Chicken." That's how he sounded.

*

In a place like downtown Atlanta, where it is near wall-to-wall concrete, you do not get a sense of the place in terms of the landscape. Instead, you read the place much more in terms of the people, of their rituals and habits.

Still, when a storm rolls in as it did this afternoon, you recognize that all this concrete, piled high as it might be, is not enough: the tallest tower visible out the window of my hotel room disappears into cloud. Half the city is - suddenly - gone. The sudden darkness of the storm brings on all the street lights I can see.

Rain starts to pour down; it continues into the darkness of night. Near the elevator shafts in the hotel, the wind roars and roars - the draft strong enough to tousle my hair like a grandfather saying hello to the barefoot child.

----------------------

MORE "NOTES ABOUT PLACE" (4)

Place might be wild. It might not be.

We need a wilderness to let us be human. We are animals. Wilderness helps us to remember that we are animals, that we are not the top of the food chain.

Farmers necessarily tame a place when they husband it. The good farmer belongs to the earth as much as the earth ever belongs to him. The miner, by contrast, takes and does not give back; for the miner, place is simply space to be exploited.

When we speak of "natural resources," perhaps we should not ask what we want to make of what we have but what we want to make of ourselves.

----------------------

I'M NOT VERY POLITICAL, BUT...

I'm not very political, but...
If I hear too many more people say "we have to preserve the sanctity of marriage," I just might have to start agitating for a "No Divorce" Amendment.


Sunday, March 07, 2004

RECOMMENDED POST OF THE WEEK:

See: Only Connect's March 1, 2004 entry, What About Lobster.

----------------------

BLESS HER: NANCY BESONEN
CAPTURES THE VAGABOND


Nancy Besonen, ace reporter for the L'Anse Sentinel, L'Anse, Michigan, captured me perfectly in her March 3rd article about my recent visit to Baraga County in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I'm going to have to make her lead to the story part of my definition of what I'm about; it is perfect.

She wrote: "Tom Montag is defining the character of the Midwest - one character at a time."

She also captured perfectly my gratitude to my wife and to those who have made contributions to this expedition:

"About 75 sponsors have helped Montag along his way with contributions ranging for $20 to $100, but the bulk of his support comes from the home front - more specifically his wife Mary. A nurse for Fond du Lac County, WI, Mary keeps the home fires burning while her husband is on the road doing research two weeks of every month. 'I can't say enough about her,' Montag said. 'Not all of us are afforded a chance to do our life dream. Mary, she's a sweetie. Or maybe she just wants me out of the house'."

Nancy, a tip of the hat, and thank you!

----------------------

NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS:
FEBRUARY 26-27, 2004
FRIDAY NIGHT WALLEYE AT THE CANTEEN BAR & GRILL


Along about 5:30 p.m. I headed down to the Canteen Bar & Grill for some supper. The place sits across the street from L'Anse's waterfront park and has a wonderful view of the water out its wide front window. Mike Jensen, the Director of the Extension Service, had told me the Canteen's walleye on Friday nights was exceptionally; he had steered me to that good piece of meat I'd had at Tony's Steak House on Wednesday night, so I was in the mood to believe him about walleye.

I walked in and found a table. When I got my bearings, I saw that Mike and his wife Connie were having supper in one of the booths closer to the front of the place. I went over to say Hello. Mike introduced me to his wife. He asked how my visit was going, whether I'd gotten to ride in one of the snow-grooming machines, and other such talk. Soon enough, they went back to their food and I returned to my table. You don't want your walleye getting cold.

The Canteen's looked so much like a Wisconsin fish fry I couldn't tell you the difference. Indeed, as I'd been told, the secretary at the Baraga County's Extension Service was one of the women waiting tables. I'd met her on Wednesday; she stopped to say hello, and to check that I'd been taken care of.

I had the good clam chowder and salad bar, the "beer-batter French fries," and - of course - the walleye. The walleye was good. The walleye was as good as any I've eaten. Three big pieces of walleye, steaming hot and tasty. I don't know what it is about bars and bar food - these little taverns know how to take care of you on a Friday night. I wouldn't need any dessert. Again.

When they finished eating, Mike and Connie Jensen circled through the tables to mine, to thank me for selecting L'Anse as one of my focus communities.

"No, thank you," I said. "I have been so well received."

"Well, we are proud to be part of your project," Mike said. "Have a safe trip home."

Now I am an Iowa farm boy, admittedly I am a little naive. Yet I pride myself on being observant, you know I do. There I'd sat throughout my meal, eating and gauging how this Friday night fish fry was like those I knew in Wisconsin, how these people are like the people I've met in my eleven other focus communities, etc. etc. I can keep myself entertained for long stretches at a time with such thoughts, just ask my wife, and at the same time I'm listening, I'm watching, I'm paying careful attention.

So I finished my last French fry, the last swig of my soda. I pushed my plate away from me with a satisfied motion and a fullness where my belly is, and I waited for my check to come. I was interested to see how much the scrumptious walleye was going to set me back.

The woman from the Extension Service, who had been waiting on another table in my area, now wiped her hands on her apron and came over to me. "Mike Jensen paid for your meal already," she said.

"No," I said. I thought I'd been paying such good attention to everything around me! "No, he didn't," I said.

"Yes," she said, "all taken care of."

"Well, be sure to tell him thank you," I said. "I think I have his e-mail address, and I will tell him thank you myself when I get home."

I left some money on the table for a tip and started making my way towards the front of the place. "You're bill is all taken care of," said another waitress, thinking I might be headed up to the bar to pay for my food. "We weren't supposed to tell you until you'd finished your meal."

----------------------

from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
MARCH 7, 1998


I am flying from Milwaukee to Atlanta. Two college girls are my seat-mates. We are Row 16. It is Spring Break.

The girl next to me takes out a composition book. It is her journal. She makes an entry:

"I am so glad I'm getting the hell out of Wisconsin. I can't wait to lay back on the beach. I will wear almost nothing."

The other girl has just broken up with her boyfriend. She shares a poem with her friend, a poem she had written for her boyfriend before the break-up. This girl keeps a journal, too, and the poem is part of her journal. When her friend has finished reading the poem, she flips the page like she is looking for more.

There is no more poem but there is more - something about Ripon, Wisconsin. Something on another page about "F-THEM. F-THEM ALL." Then a single page in huge block letters, near the final entry, filling the whole page, letters that big: "F-YOU."

"I have always been too shy," says the girl next to me. "I have been afraid to tell people what I think. Sometimes it's better if you tell them what's on your mind."

"That's not my problem," says the other girl. "My problem is I tell people what I think. I am never afraid to tell them. It gets you in trouble. Sometimes it would be better just to shut up."

"Honesty is the best policy," says the girl next to me. "I think you should always say what you think."

"Honesty is not always the best policy," says the other girl. "If you stick to that policy, you won't have any friends. It is better to lie or to shut up."

"My brother was six and I was three," says the girl next to me. "We managed to lose our parents in Disney World. We have been self-reliant ever since. We managed to lose them again in Hong Kong and survived. When we got to Paris, they kept a close eye on us. We were such jet brats."

"When I lived in Micronesia," the other girl says, "I had a friend who lived on Okinawa. We lived close to each other, we thought. But Okinawa was 2,000 miles from where I lived. Micronesia, taken all together, maybe has the land mass of Rhode Island. But it's spread out over an area the size of the continental United States."

"I want to lay back in the sun," says the girl next to me. "I want to be alone on the beach. The last thing I want to see are boys."

"My dad called," she says. "I was telling him about my trip. He said, 'Honey, you have to be so careful these days, they've got a drug they can slip into your drink.' I said 'Like, Dad, give me some credit.' What, does he think I'm entirely innocent? It's not like I'm going to the beach to get drunk on my face and get laid. I just want to lay back in the sun and be left the hell alone."

----------------------

REFLECTIONS ON BOOKS: #4
IMAGINING HOME: WRITING FROM THE MIDWEST

Edited by Mark Vinz and Thom Tammaro
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1995

I have imagined editing a book about "home" here in the middle west. I would ask middle western writers to describe the home they were born to, and then to describe the home they've chosen to inhabit now. And – perhaps the hard part – I'd want them to tease out the connections between these two homes.

Although Imagining Home, edited by Mark Vinz and Thom Tammaro, is not the book I have imagined for myself, it is a very good immersion into parts of the same territory. Admittedly, my definition of the middle west extends beyond the area – generally the "upper" middle west – that's included here. The essayists in Imagining Home represent North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The editors hope "these sixteen essays will offer readers a starting point for exploring and discovering how the landscapes of their homes have been a shaping influence in their lives."

Certainly, as the editors say, "these writers have stayed with the Midwest: loving it; hating it; wrestling with its contradictions, its transparency, its opacity, its ambiguity; but ultimately moving to embrace it."

Many of these writers are native middle westerners. They may have moved around, as did Michael Martone, from his home town, Fort Wayne, Indiana, to some time spent in Iowa. Martone is the author of the collection of essays, The Flatness & Other Landscapes, which itself goes some ways towards defining the middle west. He is also editor of an anthology of essays about the middle west, A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest (University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 1988). His work is represented here by "The Flyover" from The Flatness.

Another who is native: Martha Bergland was raised in Illinois, she lives now in Wisconsin. "We felt deprived on that flat square-mile farm" of her childhood, Bergland says, "without even an old orchard, a falling-down barn, a winding creek to play near."

"Still, that square place was our home," she says, "and now that I live in Wisconsin, in a wooded, hilly place near Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River, I miss the flat land."

"Like many, and now perhaps most, middle-class American families," she says, "no two consecutive generations of my family for six generations have lived in the same house or on the same farm, in the same town or even the same part of the country."

What the family is rooted in, Bergland says, "is in memory – and odd patches at that."

From the first landscape of David Allan Evans' Sioux City childhood, "the sky was a bowl of stars you could stand inside." The second landscape from those early years, Evans says, "has been the source of at least 70 percent of the images and experiences I've used in one way or another in poems and prose in about three decades of writing."

Kathleen Norris was born in Washington, DC, she lived in Beach Park, Illinois, and in Hawaii as a child, yet it was into her grandparents place in South Dakota that she settled as an adult. "Place can stick to us in western South Dakota," she says. A writer who knows both Norris's first book of poems and her later work told her: "When you moved to South Dakota, it's like you discovered gravity."

A dusty, rough, backroad drive to the nearest airport in Bismarck, North Dakota, was not hardship for her: "The reward in all of this," Norris says, "was experiencing all over again the incredible roominess of western Dakota, seeing signs a person would miss from the highway." The reward was a suddenness of golden eagle overhead.

Jack Driscoll is not native to the region, either; he was from Holyoke, Massachusetts, I think. Yet he has chosen the place that chose him, Michigan. Oh, his ex-wife had warned: "Don't go out to the Midwest, don't go there." She thought the Midwest "was barren and flat and full of Bibles," the people fifteen years behind the times.

"Trespasser, visitor, resident, native – my burrowing has gone something like this," Driscoll says, "though maybe native spirit will be all I can honestly claim in the end. If so, it will no doubt be enough."

It is such a strangeness, and how it blesses us, this attachment and re-attachment to place, this need to put down roots, to let a place - our special home - nourish us.

Eleven other fine writers have essays included in Imagining Home: Carol Bly, Paul Gruchow, Patricia Hampl, Linda Hasselstrom, Jon Hassler, David Haynes, Bill Holm, Kent Meyers, Robert Schuler, Mary Swander, and Larry Watson.

If you are able to find a copy of Imagining Home, read it, cherish it, learn from it. It should help you understand the terrain of your own habitation.

----------------------

THANKS....

To the following folks for their recent contributions to the Vagabond Expedition:
#85 Mike & Marjorie Gowdy, Iowa
#86 Roger & Margot Brockmeyer, California

Saturday, March 06, 2004

SATURDAY'S POEM
----------------------
SPARE TIRE

by Phil Hey


Here's the way it is, certain places
in the Midwest: one day I was walking
in town on some errand or other
and there was this tire, a good one,
mounted on a wheel you could use,
not new but with plenty of miles left on it,
laying up against the trunk of a tree.
Nobody was around, nobody was guarding it,
nobody would have said anything
if I'd just up and rolled it away as my own.
But you could tell, somebody had lost a spare
and somebody had found it and left it there
for them when they came back looking.
You could go to any big city you wanted to
and not find that. But around here,
when it's nice out, when anybody
might be walking past - you never know -
take a look yourself: right out in the open,
where the only thing is to trust people
you don't know, a hubcap, a bookbag,
a mitten; even in summer.

Phil Hey's new and selected poems, How It Seems to Me, will be forthcoming from MWPH Books later this year. Hey teaches literature and writing at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa. He has a little piece of ground outside the city where he tends a couple horses, cuts wood, writes poems.

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A NOTE TO THE POETS OUT THERE
I'm interested in considering your "poems of place" for publication in The Middlewesterner's "Saturday's Poem" feature; send two or three of your best in the body of an e-mail addressed to tmmontag@dotnet.com . Put "Saturday's Poem" in the subject line. Then be patient. I will get back to you about whether I'll use your work or not. Send along a short biographical note and information about where your books can be purchased and I'll include that when your poem runs. There's no payment involved for having your work appear in "Saturday's Poem," but the feature is seen by some high class readers. About fourteen of them, by our current count.

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from
THE MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
MARCH 6, 1998


A neighbor, walking. I see him often in the morning. Those who walk believe. Those who believe walk. Each mile is another fifteen minutes of breath on this blue amazing planet.

A snow plow, heading south as I head north. A crust of ice and snow blasted into the air. Salt scattering on the highway. Like the taste of blood. Like a moist kiss, so deep and insistent you cannot get air. The orange blade of the plow grumbles on the pavement. Snow hangs onto the trees, as if the branches could catch and hold the light.


Friday, March 05, 2004

IN MEMORIAM: RICHARD ROCHELEAU, RUGBY, NORTH DAKOTA

I've just heard from my friend Theresa Rocheleau in Rugby, North Dakota, that her husband's uncle, Richard Rocheleau, died recently at age 82 after a bout with lung cancer. I am saddened.

Richard was a pretty remarkable man. I met him at a birthday party the Rocheleau family threw for him in January 2003, and he let me run my tape recorder for four hours while he and the family talked in the living room. Here are the passages from the Vagabond newsletter about that visit with him and the family:

January 20, 2003
I went to Edna Rocheleau's house yesterday at 2 p.m. for a surprise 81st birthday party for Jim Rocheleau's uncle, Richard Rocheleau. I got on tape four hours of conversation with Richard Rocheleau, Big Jim, and Big Jim's brother Jerry, who farms north of Rugby. It was a family experience not unlike what I'm used to - grown children and grandchildren intermingling, a great pot of scalloped potatoes with ham and ground meat, a tuna and macaroni hot dish, salads like you'd see at an Iowa picnic.

As Richard Rocheleau was Jim's dad's brother, his experience of the world would be similar to that of Jim's dad. Rocheleau (Richard) talked of growing up in those hard days, of serving in the Navy during World War II. He was on board his vessel as far as Hawaii where he and several other sailors whose names began with "R-O" received strict orders to get off and stay in Hawaii while the ship and everyone else on it went off to battle. Rocheleau spent most of his Navy career not far from Waikiki Beach.

When he returned to North Dakota, he was home only a week when he realized how lonely his existence was - in the Navy he'd grown used to the hustle and bustle of humanity around him. Yet his father talked him out of re-enlisting. Rocheleau thinks he missed his moment to break free of North Dakota right after the war, and he might regret having missed the opportunity. Once you start putting down roots in a place, once family has its hold on you, Rocheleau thinks, that's where you'll stay, you can't get away.

Rocheleau served three terms in the North Dakota state legislature. He was an auctioneer and an inventor, he farmed, ran a tree moving business, removed stumps. He removed stumps right up until last year and thinks the hard work and exercise kept him fit. He pats his tummy and says: "Now I've gone soft."

One of Rocheleau's stand-out moments in the legislature was during debate on a bill about auctioneering that he was opposed to. When it came his turn to speak, he rose up and said his piece entirely in the chant of an auctioneer. Nearly thirty years later he could repeat the chant for me. The words rolled off his tongue rhythmically, punctuated by the auctioneer's up and down and pause and burst. When he finished for the legislature, there was absolute silence in the chamber. No one knew what to say - time stood still for that moment. Then a thunder of applause from all corners of the room. "Even so," Rocheleau said, "everyone voted 'Green,' I was the only 'Red' vote." A few days later the Governor waved him over from across the street - "Oh now I'm going to get it," Rocheleau thought. He walked across traffic to take his licking. "I want to commend you on that speech," the Governor said. He praised Rocheleau's chant and Rocheleau wondered how the Governor could be talking about it as if he'd heard it. "I was on the phone with a legislator," the Governor said. "The fellow held up his phone when you started so I heard the whole thing."

Jim and Jerry Rocheleau talked also - the afternoon wasn't an interview so much as it was a discussion, family talking over Sunday dinner, over cake and ice cream. Jim and Jerry brought my sense of the family's life on the farm forward a generation. They are only slightly younger than I am, so I was hearing the North Dakota version of my childhood.

One thing that Jerry said which stands out: "There are no trees out here, we are used to seeing the horizon, so we are wide-open and a little untamed. When we go east and end up among all those trees, we feel confined. When a fellow from the east comes out to North Dakota and sees our horizon, he feels naked."


May Richard Rocheleau rest in peace. Amen.

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NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS:
FEBRUARY 26-27, 2004
RIDING SHOTGUN WITH THE SNOW-GROOMER


It was 9:05 p.m. I was parked where the snow-mobile trail crosses Prison Camp Road south of L'Anse near Alberta. This is where I was supposed to meet Tom Larson at 10:00 p.m. I like to be early, rather than late, and perhaps this is the reason why: about 9:07 p.m. this apparition of ghostly lights came down the trail towards me, it was Tom Larson in the Tucker Snow Cat pulling a drag that groomed and repacked the snow-mobile trail.

I flashed my headlights, then got out of the car. Tom brought the Snow Cat to a stop.

When you look at Tom Larson's face, you see the roughened skin of a fellow who spends a lot of time working outside; you see a kind of weariness in the eyes that is common to those people who work while the rest of us sleep. Tom would be working twelve hours tonight grooming the trail to Nestoria, that to Sidnaw, then probably he'd have to groom the trail from Baraga to Chassell, too. He'd work a long night tonight, he'd worked twelve hours last night, he worked twelve hours the night before that. He's not bragging when he says it: he shrugs his shoulders as if to say "What are you gonna do?"

This is Tom's second year at grooming snow-mobile trails in Baraga County. "I've been here two years and I've got the most seniority," he said, if that will give you any idea how popular this night work is.

He warned me that riding in the Snow Cat "will grow on you." Last year on most of his trips someone rode with him as he plunged through the dark strangeness of the U.P. night.

The police scanner in the cab of the Snow Cat crackled with an exchange. "That's my entertainment for the evening," Tom said.

How did he come to this job?

"I saw an ad in the paper," he said. "I called and they told me to come get an application, so I did. Then I had to go in for an interview. They asked about my knowledge of machinery. I had worked in the woods with heavy equipment - caterpillars and skid-loaders and that sort of thing. A couple weeks later I was driving down the road and my phone rang. 'You are a successful applicant,' they told me."

"Sometimes the job isn't fun. If you breakdown when it's ten degrees below zero, you are forty miles out in the wilderness, you can't run the engine, and it's snowing so hard you can't see anything - that's not fun," Tom said. "At two o'clock in the morning."

"That happened last year," he explained. "The radiator split and blew out all the anti-freeze. There I sat in the dark. I couldn't run the engine without anti-freeze, that would burn it up. I was up above the Roland Lake gravel pit on my way to Big Bay. There is no service on the phone up there - it's a bad spot for the phone towers. That's why we have the sheriff band radio in here, we can communicate on that in emergencies. It took three and a half hours for someone to come get me. A fellow came out in another one of the machines and brought me seven gallons of anti-freeze. He pulled my drag and followed me back. If I left the cap loose on the radiator, the anti-freeze wouldn't squirt out, even though the radiator was split. He followed me all the way back. We got home at 10:30 in the morning that time."

Tom had had a gas heater in the cab of the Snow Cat to keep him warm during that three and a half hour wait. Normally he carries the heater, chain saws, a big tool kit, a fire extinguisher, first aid kit, soda, and something for his stomach if the hamburger he eats when he takes a break at Nestoria wants to give him a little heartburn. "I have to take this stuff with me," he said. "I've had to fix these machines on the trail before. Chains. Come-alongs. I've got just about everything in here."

"I worked in the woods logging for sixteen years," Tom told me. "I had to get out of that before I got killed. It's too easy to get hurt."

He illustrated how the plow on the front of the Snow Cat works hydraulically. "You use it when the trail is really bad," he said. "There are teeth on the blade of it. If you dig it in too deep, it'll stop the machine just like that and you'll hit the windshield." The windshield is cracked already. It started as a little ding and the machine's constant vibration keeps making it worse.

There are two seats in the cab of the Tucker, an instrument panel between them, the gear shift for the automatic transmission, a lever for raising and lowering the plow in front and for controlling the drag being pulled behind. Two sets of lights illuminate the way ahead.

"When it snows," Tom said, "you can't see what kind of job you're doing until you turn around and come back down the trail. The tracks throw up that much snow when the snow is loose."

Snow-mobilers might surprise the grooming operator when he's out at night. Tom has to keep watching for them.

"This is cruise control," Tom said, and he showed me a length of metal that he stuck into place to hold the gas pedal at a certain speed. "There is also a hand throttle but it keeps creeping down and you're constantly adjusting it. This cruise control, you just kick it if something happens." He did, and the machine slowed.

"This is pretty smooth right here," he said of a nice stretch. "We don't have to do too much with it." He pops his cruise control back into place.

"We're going about fourteen miles per hour now," he said. "When the snow gets deep, you can't groom this fast."

"You can feel when it's losing power," Tom said. "Snow is building up in the drag. You raise it a bit and it releases some of the snow."

He popped the machine out of cruise control to take a steeply-banked corner. I swear it felt like the machine was going to tip over, it seemed to be leaning that far. When I grabbed the handle above my door, Tom smiled and looked at me as if to say "Welcome aboard, newcomer."

"It takes some getting used to" is what he said outloud.

The drag weighs two thousand pounds, Tom told me. "It really smooths out the trail. This drag is getting worn. It needs a new cutting blade on it, but it'll make the season."

What does he do in the summer now that he doesn't work in the woods?

"Last summer I did well working for myself doing carpentry and wiring houses," he said.

The Tucker was rocking back and forth from side to side. The engine droned, its pitch climbing and dropping according to how hard the drag had to work smoothing the trail.

He could be grooming trails well into April, Tom said. "Out here in the woods, the trees shade the snow. The sun doesn't bust up the trail so bad."

He no longer snow-mobiles himself, he said. "Actually, when I got this job last year, I sold my two snow-mobiles and the trailer. When you do this all night, you don't want to jump on a snow-mobile and ride during the day."

The Snow Cat was feeling like it was going to tip over again. I grabbed the handle again. Tom looked at me with the amusement of a veteran.

Ahead we saw an overpass looming. "That's US Highway 41 south of Alberta," Tom said. "We have to go under the highway here."

"The warmer the snow," he said, "the easier it gets chewed up by the snow-mobiles." The snow on the trail was packed about a foot deep.

We came to a part of the trail that is a logging road. They'd been logging through here this winter, but recently had stopped, "so we've got good trail now." The trucks had been tearing up the snow surface of the road. "Actually, this is Old Highway 41," Tom said.

"If it's really cold, I'll have an extra coat and pants with me," Tom said. "I was putting up a sign at some water a little while back, and my foot slipped. This leg went into the water almost all the way up to my waist. I had to take my boot and liner off and put them over the heater to dry them out, and I rode all night with my bare foot up by the windshield."

Branches were coming out of the darkness at us, slapping the side windows of the Tucker.

"It's not a bad job," Tom said. "I ride around and get paid for it. But by about March, you don't want to get up and go out on the trail. This past January, with three machines, we groomed more than 6100 miles of trail. We had a lot of snow and a lot of snow-mobilers. To keep the trails in shape, we had to take out all three machines every night. The more sleds on the trail, the more they tear it up, the more you've got to groom."

So, I asked, how do you feel about snow-mobilers?

"I hate 'em!" he said. "At least that's what I tell Tracey." He laughed. Tracey Barrett is Executive Director of the Baraga County Tourist and Recreation Association. Tom's boss reports to her and so, ultimately, does Tom. "When snow-mobilers see us out grooming the trails, it's always a thumbs up. The women will throw you kisses."

When he started the job, Tom already had a familiarity with equipment. It was just a matter of learning where all the controls were located. "After while," he said, "you know exactly where everything is, you can do it in the dark."

The Chassell Trail, Tom believes, is one of the busiest in the network of trails in the county. "It leads right to the casino in Baraga," he said. "That's where everyone goes."

"They aren't getting my money," he added.

And the Big Bay Trail is also popular, he thinks.

"The smoother the better," Tom said as we flew down the darkness. "The trail feels worse in here than it does on a snow-mobile. These new sleds have terrific suspensions."

The fellows who operate the grooming equipment alternate which trails they work and which machines they drive. Or maybe sometimes it's "first one there gets his pick of equipment." Tom showed me a maintenance log in a binder kept in the cab of the Snow Cat. There's a checklist for just about everything. "It's easier to fix things in a warm shop," he said, "than to fix them out on the trail."

"Here's the power-line," he said. We'd come upon a big transmission line. "We follow this for a long stretch." The snow-mobile trail uses the same right-of-way as the power-line through that area.

"I see lots of deer on certain trails," Tom said. "Last night two rabbits ran across in front of me on the Big Bay Trail. I haven't see a wolf, but I've seen a lot of wolf tracks back there just before were we came under Highway 41, and on the Big Bay trail."

What do people up here think about wolves?

"They hate 'em," Tom said. "They don't like 'em."

We changed the subject. "These rubber tracks give a smoother ride, and it's quiet," he said of the Snow Cat's treads. "If we had the machine with metal tracks, you'd feel it and you'd hear it."

Now we'd come to a section of trail where the power company was replacing the poles that hold the electric wires. The equipment that is used to replace the poles has torn up the trail in places. "They've got to do it in the winter-time," Tom said, "because this ground is wet." Because he knew they'd be working here this year, he'd originally tried to put the trail along the other side of the power-line. "Too many rocks over there put an end to that."

He lowered the blade in front of the Tucker. "See how it will roll that snow?"

We came past a place where the power company's equipment was parked off to the side of the trail, then Tom said "that's Highway 41 over there," pointing off to our right. "If you watch, every once in a while you'll see car lights there. You wonder what they think when they see us going through the woods, this light moving among threes, no noise. It's like a ghost."

We went up and we went down. "It's kind of like a mini-roller-coaster ride here for a bit," Tom said. "If I could, I'd take you on the trail to Sidnaw. There's one hill on it, the trail comes up over the top of it and you just go straight down."

Now there were dried cat-tails standing on both sides of the trail, most of their brown furriness still clinging tightly to the top couple inches of stalk. "This is a fun spot the first time you come through it," Tom said. "This swamp could swallow up one of these machines."

We crossed a bridge made especially for snow-mobilers. "We built it," Tom said, "and we put it here."

We were swaying side to side and front to back. It wasn't exactly like trying to ride a wild bull, well maybe it was a little bit like it. "If the trails is too rough," Tom said, "you have to go slower or you'll get thrown out of the machine."

We came upon more power company equipment parked at the side of the trail. Tom pointed at a machine. "They left the lights on in that one the other night," he said. "When I came through here the other night, there it was shining in the dark. They probably parked the equipment before it was dark so they didn't notice. I found the switch and turned the lights off. I left them a note: 'The trail groomer turned your lights off at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday.'"

Even where they've torn up the trail moving their equipment, Tom hasn't criticized the power company. "They own the right-of-way," he'd explained at one point. "We're lucky they let the trail go through here."

Tom pretty much knows every curve of the trail, every bump and grind of the route. "There are a couple big rocks on this trail that stay exposed until the snow gets a little deeper," Tom said. "You have to pay attention to them." The machine jumped slightly, as if on cue. "Feel that? That was a rock. I didn't hit it very hard, but I felt it."

"Yeah, the highway is right there," Tom said, pointing. "If a car was going past you'd see right into it."

"See all these signs?" he said. He was talking about the snow-mobilers' traffic signs. "We had to change our trail signs. They want the same traffic symbols for snow-mobilers as for the highways. So that whether you are in your car or on your snow-mobile, the sign is the same."

We were headed into the liquid blackness coming at us when suddenly we saw headlights coming up the trail. It was two snow-mobiles. They pulled off the trail and circled their noses back towards us. Tom gave them a couple beeps of the horn as we went past, an acknowledgement of the comradery.

"Oh, they're going to ride on my freshly-groomed trail," Tom said. "It'll have tracks on it now. The rotten buggers." If he was trying to sound like he was upset, he didn't do a very good job. When I worked on a golf course in college, getting up to mow greens and move pins at 5:00 in the morning, I tried to sound like I didn't like golfers, too. But I knew where my paycheck came from. So does Tom.

The snow-mobile trail is established pretty much where the trail groomer chooses to groom early in the season, Tom indicated. He has some leeway in the exact layout, within the confines of the right-of-way that has been established.

Tom said: "I'd liked to take someone along when it was really storming and have them videotape the trip - so people can see what it's really like out here."

"You don't get much choice here, I see," I said. We were climbing a narrow ridge and there wasn't much room to spare either to the right or the left.

"Nor here," Tom said as we topped the hill and both sides of the trail dropped away even more steeply. I swallowed and was glad Tom had all the seniority and experience he had.

Soon enough we were back out on flat ground. Tom put his makeshift cruise control in place. Our headlights were eating up the darkness.

All of a big sudden he pulled off the cruise control. The machine slowed and groaned. "Railroad tracks," Tom said. He touched the hydraulic and lifted the front end of the drag behind us. "You don't want to catch one of those rails. That'll stop you quick."

Then we were plowing down the night again, when just as suddenly it was like we'd come out of a tunnel of darkness. The sound of everything opened up, you could feel the noise of the Tucker flying away. Lights. We crossed Highway 41. The end of the portion of the trail that Tom was responsible for tonight. We pulled into the parking lot of Cozy Inn at Nestoria.

"I stop here and take a little break," Tom said. We climbed down out of the Tucker. "Oh, my back," he said as he stretched his legs and straightened up. "This is hard on your back." It looked to me like the run of long hours was wearing on him.

We went into Cozy Inn. There was a bartender on his side of the bar, there were two fellows on our side. Tom had worked in the woods with one of the fellows, the other guy was a truck driver. The truck driver was talking about trucking, as truck drivers are wont to do, the way poets want to talk about poetry. The two men looked at us as we bellied up to the bar. Tom went to the cooler and got himself a root beer, he got me a diet cola, he asked the fellow behind the bar for a hamburger. He told the fellow he'd work with in the woods that he was showing me the ropes. The guy thought maybe I wasn't dressed for the work, what with my shirt that has a button-down collar, my sweater vest. If we'd have been in the city, I'd have thought maybe he was picking a fight, but we were in the country and this was just a good-natured country fellow who had a few beers in him. I just smiled and nodded at him and didn't try to explain that I was a writer, or worse, a poet.

The truck driver was talking some more about truck driving, about which streets in Detroit you could and couldn't park on in the dark, about two black fellows who stopped traffic at an intersection for him so he could back around and get his rig headed in the right direction to make a delivery in an otherwise ugly mess of streets. When they'd gotten him squared away, the truck driver said, he'd given them a $20 bill and told them to have a good time.

Then we were talking about grooming the trails and riding in the Tucker Snow Cat and what-not. In a bar, you don't have to signal your tangents, a few non-sequiturs are expected. The good-natured country fellow opened another Bud Light and told Tom how go-o-od it tasted. Tom just smiled and sipped his root beer. The fellow wanted to ride in the Snow Cat with Tom to some bar at the end of another trail somewhere; he thought I should drive his pick-up to the bar, then we'd switch places again. He really wanted a ride in the Snow Cat.

Tom took all the banter good-naturedly until the fellow thought maybe he'd go out and climb up in the driver's seat of the Tucker. Tom didn't do or say anything obvious, in fact he was entirely pleasant throughout, but all of a sudden I knew it was time to go. Tom finished his root beer in one swallow, and though you wouldn't say he straightened his back, at least his shadow straightened its back. "We've got to get back at it," he said. "I've got a long way to go." And so we did. We climbed back in the Tucker, which had been idling all the while in the parking lot.

We were back on the trail. "The temperature is not quite right," Tom said. "See the balls of snow the drag left? The snow wants to ball up." Partly that was the result of the temperature and partly "we haven't had any new snow in awhile."

"You get used to drivimg right next to those signs without knocking them over," Tom said. He had been grooming to the edge of his side of the trail on the way out; now he was grooming to the edge of my side on the way back. "You want the trail as wide as you can make it, up to a width and a half of the drag."

The drag we were pulling packed the snow by the sheer force of weight. "We are going to an equipment show at Watersmeet," Tom said. "There's a new drag that also vibrates to pack the snow firmer."

Back at the place where the power company had been working I observed that "they really messed up the trail here." The ruts were wide and deep. "We can fix 'er up," Tom said, and he did.

Where the trail went right between the poles of the power-line, there were markers with alternating and slanted yellow and black lines. "The lower end of the lines has to be towards the center of the trail, that way the markers guide the snow-mobiler onto the trail between then. The DNR showed me pictures of some markers that had been put up wrong on one of the trails. I had to go change them. The fellow who put them up wasn't aware that there was a right way and a wrong way."

We were back along Highway 41 and saw traffic going past. "This is not such a bad trail to break down on," Tom said. "Along here you're close to the road."

I wondered outloud if snow-mobilers wouldn't give up riding their sleds if they could drive the Tucker and groom trails. Tom repeated what he'd said earlier: "This is all the trail-riding I want to do."

"Most of the riding is in the day-time, which is good," Tom said. "We groom and the trail gets to set up at night. It hardens up."

There were more ruts where the power company had been working. "They can tear the trail up with their equipment but I can fix it," Tom said. The ruts looked worse to me now that we were heading back, partly because they were on my side of the trail.

"We have less snow cover than usual," Tom observed. The engine of the Tucker was roaring, the treads throwing up some snow, the drag grinding the trail down to a white smoothness behind us.

"How much do you think the rubber tracks for this Snow Cat cost?" Tom asked me. I didn't even want to venture a guess.

"$4000 apiece."

"We send this machine out on the trail the first time because the rubber tracks help it to float across the swamps if they're still wet. The only way to get the trail set up is to get out there early and starting pushing snow down into the swamp. We call snow 'Finlander gravel" because you can make a road with it."

"This is a $140,000 machine," Tom said. "We trade them in every three years. This one has 15,045 miles on it in three years - 1700 hours of running time. You can figure the average miles per hour." That would be nearly nine miles per hour, including operator rest time when the machine is running but not moving.

"I groomed a hundred and ten miles of trail in one night," Tom said. He wasn't bragging, it was just a fact. "It took sixteen hours. If I do both these trails and the run to Chassell tonight, that'll be a hundred twenty miles. I will be a beat puppy when I get home."

Riding in the warm cab is not as cushy a job as some might think. Just staying in your seat as the Tucker jerks side to side and front to back is a workout: as the Snow Cat flies down the trail, you use all the muscles you've got to keep your bones in place. The night driving on the trail is exhilarating, but it is tiring too.

"The more the snow-mobilers come up here, the more we have to groom," Tom said. "We have three grooming machines and five trails, so we have to double up some trails every night. The warmer it gets farther to the south, the more the snow-mobilers come up here. Some years we're the only place that has good snow and people are just begging for motel rooms."

There is a crescent moon hanging in the sky ahead of us. "One night there was a full moon so bright," Tom said, "I shut all the lights off and groomed by moonlight. You could see half a mile down the trail, that's how bright it was."

We passed under Highway 41 again and Tom soon brought the machine to a stop. "Jump out," he said. "I'll show you how much the trail has set up already." We met behind the drag. "See how firm this is already?" He kicked the part of the trail that we'd groomed on the way out. I checked the firmness of it with my boot. "Now compare that to this side." He indicated the snow behind the drag, which was almost the consistency of loose snow by comparison. "It'll take just a couple hours for this to firm up, then the whole trail will be smooth as glass."

We got back in the cab of the Snow Cat and started rolling again. "Next week we're supposed to get more snow," Tom said. "That's job security, when it snows. I have a buddy who is a roofer. Every time it rains he says 'Pennies from heaven' because somebody's roof will leak and that's work for him. That's what snow is for me."

"If we had a good blizzard tonight," Tom said, "I could give you a really good ride. You can have a complete white-out. One time I just had to stop. I couldn't tell whether I was on the trail or out in the middle of a field."

"The harder the trail freezes, the less the snow-mobiles tear it up," Tom said.

We were passing through a portion of woods owned by Michigan Tech. "There forestry classes will come out here," Tom said. "There'll be snow-shoe tracks all through the woods. I'll say 'Oh, a class came through here today.'"

We were nearly back to my car where it was parked on Prison Camp Road. (Or as it says on the maps, Baraga Plains Road - but everyone knows it as Prison Camp Road.) Trail grooming is partly a matter of getting to know the trails, Tom said; and partly it's a matter of getting to know the limitations of the machines - the Tucker pulling the drag, and the drag itself.

We stopped where the snow-mobile trail came out of the woods and ran along Prison Camp Road for a quarter mile. My car was just across the way.

"Thanks for the ride," I said. I appreciated the chance to see him doing his job, to hear him talk of his work.

"Oh, thank you," Tom said, like I'd done him the favor. "I like taking people out with me."

I got down out of the Tucker and closed the door firmly. It was about one o'clock in the morning, but I was headed back to my motel room, a warm bed, a night's sleep. Tom was headed down the trail to Sidnaw, then maybe he'd have to go to Chassell if no one else wanted to do that trail tonight.

He had miles to go before he could sleep.

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from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
MARCH 5, 1998


I suppose the first thing they have to teach those Navy fellows out to sea is not to shoot through the floor. Which maybe explains why so many of them seem conservative. And bull-headed. Sometimes I think the ship has to be sinking before they'll listen.

Cool and grey, this morning: serious, but not somber. If the sap is rising, today it pauses.

Stones are conservative, definitely conservative. Like Navy men. Trees are liberal. Stones get where they are going but it's always with a lot of grunting and puffing. Trees, sometimes they fly.

Stoneboat. Stone boat. Stone. Boat.

Even when other people are having seconds, don't ask for more. What we are given is enough. Today is enough. This is enough.


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