Sunday, August 19, 2012

Back Road

It doesn't always snow in Dayton, Washington.  When it does, you get these big, fluffy mounds that drift across the road and settle nicely at the bottom of the gulches and gullies.  Columbia County is, topographically speaking, like a big patchwork quilt that someone fluffed and never smoothed, with gently rounded hills and creek beds at the bottom of every canyon.  Wheat fields are interspersed with fallow, soybeans, bearded barley and rapeseed.  Corn crops up from time to time and strip farming is common to help aid in preventing soil erosion.  Farming is a time-honored profession.  I learned this not only from living in the environment, but from a day my grandfather took me on a little excursion.

He had an old white Ford pick up truck, and when we would go for a drive up the back roads- Patit Road, Johnson Hollow, Eckler Mountain, Crall Hollow, the Touchet River Road and Hatley Gulch, we would look for wildlife.  I'm a crackpot wildlife spotter.  I don't see dark colors well and cannot accurately tell between gray, brown, and green or blue from black, but I see shapes extremely well.  I can spot small game from hundreds of yards and tend towards a holistic view of a given landscape.  Leaves, time of year, light and weather just sort of point things out for me. And Grandpa loved to go for a drive. I think he just really loved to look around his world.  He drove until he was 89 years old and the people in Dayton just sort of watched out for his car since he stopped obeying parking signs or places to stop and go.  Nice people, Daytonites.

We'd get going and be on top of the world, looking out at the land and the fields, breathing the clean air.  The windows would be rolled all the way down and neither of us thought about seatbelts.  Half the time, I rode in the back of the truck, losing my breath looking over the top of the cab or coughing on dust the whole time.  But on drives like this, Grandpa would dispense advice and we'd take turns pointing out mule and whitetail deer, the occasional elk, gorgeously plumed Chinese pheasants and coyotes.  Grandpa would point off to the right, and that's the way the truck would veer.  On a washboard gravel road, it gets pretty terrifying to swerve so sharply.  Fortunately, we didn't go faster than 20 miles per hour on these outings.  Grandpa didn't really notice, as he would be busy telling stories and jokes I had heard a hundred times before about a 12-point elk (his antlers are still up at the cabin), building hydraulic wood splitters and how the crops are doing that year. I loved it and I knew that one day these would be only memories.  Every ditch we narrowly avoided, every herd of Mulies we spotted and the few black bears we saw stuck in my memory and lingers still in my imagination.  They serve as part of the vast backdrop of my storytelling.  As adults, my sisters and I would play a game with our boyfriends.  We'd take them out to my grandparent's house and wait for Grandpa to offer to take him of a ride, then decline to go with him.  Depending on how carsick and/or frustrated he got would sometimes dictate whether or not that relationship continued.  We weren't really nice girls.

When I was 12, Grandpa took me to watch harvest in action.  I hopped in the truck with him and we made our dusty way towards Waitsburg and off to the Northeast to a corner I'd never be able to find on a map. Fifty or so trucks parked in a field and I recognized several of the old men from town, including my Uncle Vernon.  Almost everyone there was an old man, with a few child witnesses, more curious about days gone by than swimming at the community pool.

Two men sat atop an old-time swather.  A twenty-mule team was hitched to pull, only there were way more than twenty mules.  How did they get so many out here in one field? How were they going to pull that heavy piece of equipment on a hillside?  In the Boax commercials, which is what one usually associates with a twenty mule team, the mules are hitched in a double line, two deep and ten long.  This was not the case. The mules were four and six deep but only five or so long.  As they pulled the swather along, the mules towards the sides did the work of turning and the ones in the front added stability.  Likewise for going straight across the field.  It was hot work for men and mules, kicking up dust but doing the job of wheat harvest.  I can see why a whole crew was needed for harvest work.  Indeed, my grandmother's first paying job was to cook twice daily for a harvest crew of about a dozen men, including shopping for, cooking and cleaning up after the meals.  Hard work for women too.

As Grandma had grown up in a large family with nine siblings, she knew inherently how to plan, cook, serve and clean up after men and children.  A lady hired her was a teenager to stay at their farm and cook for the harvest crew, including the man of the family.  The lady didn't think much of my Grandma, nor did she trust her cooking skills, allowing her to only make one kind of dessert, kind of a dry cake with no icing.  The men didn't really like the cake and Grandma offered to make something else.  The lady wouldn't hear of it, saying that Grandma would just waste money in making inedible messes.  But the man, after a week of the same thing, took Grandma aside and asked her if she could make chocolate cake.  Yes, yes of course she could. And so triumphantly, a chocolate layer cake with chocolate icing was baked and proudly set before them.  It was promptly devoured.  Every Sunday afterwards, Grandma baked them the same cake.  They paid her two dollars a week, plus room and board.  A dollar was enough for a pair of shoes and she gave most of it to her family to help with expenses.  She was fifteen or sixteen years old and worked as a cook for the rest of her life.

Hours later, I was still mesmerized by the process of pull, turn, pull turn.  Dump grain and cart it off. Pull, turn, pull turn. Sweat.  Sweaty mules, sweaty men.  It all depended on them working together in unison.  One man calling out and the rest knowing their jobs. Community.  The mules knew their jobs too, and were offered water when the men took a break too.  It's damn hard work.

Farming practices have evolved greatly.  My friend Ramon Streby works harvest on a big, air conditioned harvester, wearing Oakleys and blaring music in the cab.  He posts pictures on Facebook looking cool.  My other friend Elissa is a physics teacher in Long Beach, California.  Sometimes she has to go home to Dayton to help out too.  Thin, tan and a beautiful California girl, she goes when her dad calls.  And all of us, us kids from Dayton, we sometimes spread out over the world.  David is in New York, I am in Oklahoma, Claudia is in Texas and more and more of us travel and move around the globe.  But the center of our world is, ultimately, a gravel road and an old truck with buttons you push on hard to get the radio station to tune in. It's a 12 degree creek on a hot July day and taking your kid fishing for the first time on the Tucannon.  It's my Grandma telling me stories of the church socials where all the unmarried girls would make a pail lunch for two and put them on a picnic table, and all the unmarried men would choose a pail and that's who you would have lunch with.  Grandma got an ugly one once, and she stopped making delicious lunches for church after that.

We rode home in silence.  I'm not sure why Grandpa took me to see the harvest, Maybe he didn't mean to take me at all.  I'm glad he did.
Later in life, I did the driving

Grandma- heading to church


Mule Deer

Harvest. Photo Credit:

Columbia County. Photo Credit:


  1. Great memories. I enjoy hearing these rich memories about your family.

  2. Sometime you'll have to write about our adventures in Grandpa's barn and pasture, and don't forget your silver horse (a.k.a. the heating oil drum!). I think we traumatized Broughton's cows for many bovine generations to come. Remember the smell of the asparagus water they piped from the cannery for the fields and truckloads of asparagus butts for the cows? I often wondered if their steaks had an asparagus flavor to them.....

  3. Thank you, Debbie! <3

    And my dear Yvette: Your writing skills are probably better than mine are. I think you should start writing all this down too. :)