Thursday, October 27, 2011
High Plains Drifter
The clouds move so quickly you can't catch them with a fast car, grass laid flat in submission. Even the wind turbines seem to lean forward, waving their arms as if losing balance before a fall. A cold front has passed, the wind is howling, isobars dancing cheek to cheek as they move across the map to the northeast
Out west at my family's house, the first snow has piled and drifted, but the sky is clear, a motionless inverted blue bowl, the temperature a balmy 7 degrees. Neighbors emerge from their homes with the postures of survivors having gotten through flood, hostage taking or back to back episodes of Dancing with the Stars. Driveways are shoveled, cars are brushed off, lungs burning with cold, holding in a trace of woodsmoke, that narcotic perfume of impending winter.
I first came to the Midwest as a young bride, to the very edge of the southern plains. My husband considered us Southerners, I considered myself a Midwesterner. Depends on which direction you looked at things I imagine, our individual horizons incised in whetted contrast to the circumference of this flat, harsh landscape.
A lot was new to me, cows, running farm equipment, the weather. I'd never seen a tornado, only hearing that when they are bearing down on you, they sound like a freight train. One night home alone, I saw the portent of danger in a tornado warning on TV. Alone, and not sure of what county was which, having been in the area only days, I felt fear. I felt more than that when I heard, through the sound of the howling wind and thunder, a freight train. I took cover in the bathtub with my black lab and a twin mattress pulled off the guest bed, the husky preferring to be sucked up like a giant fur ball in a vacuum cleaner than leave his warm spot by the fire. It passed, and unharmed I called my neighbor who couldn't stop laughing. For what I'd heard was not a tornado, as there wasn't one just a good storm. It was the train that ran through the 20 acres behind my new home every night a little after 10.
I got better with the weather, learning quickly what was safe to stay out in, and what was not, learning early we are just serfs of the elements, severe weather usually arriving in the late night like a broken king, rushing in, ready to do battle with the sleeping.
We had a few hardscrabble acres on which rocks were the preferred crop, as well as a growing herd of cattle. Ours was but a small farm, which wouldn't have sustained us had we not held other jobs. Friends would tell me how lucky I was to have the land and the freedom and and I was. But I think that in actuality it's like having two full time jobs, 7 days a week. I was playing occasional weekend warrior flying a jet, and holding down a full time job in the aerospace industry. Add to that family, dogs, cats, an old horse named Elmer and a husband on a medical discharge from the military battling his demons, I had my hands full. Family members often pull up songs from those years on the radio and say "remember that one?" I honestly don't. That time to me was sweat and work, the smell of cow manure, JP4, and the salt of tears; moments of roses and moment of thorns being of equal duration, passing too quickly in recollection. I sometimes look back as if that whole 10 years happened to someone else, endless, alternating days and nights like a vacuum in which no air would come.
Yet, given the choice, I would not take that time back. We do not cease from the experiences, in the end of experience we arrive back where we started, seeing them as if for the first time, but at a nice safe distance, with wisdom otherwise not gained. It was a time to grow, to learn, to build. I learned how to fix a furnace, and pull a calf from her mother, how to make supper out of almost nothing, the household money squandered on chasing something no one could provide even as I pulled down my shirtsleeves to hide the bruises. I learned how to hold my head up high in a small town buzzing over the gossip that came with that. And I learned when to walk away when the demons finally won.
I remember one of the last nights there, as I pulled on my Carharts and looked for my boots, as the glare of the headlights illuminated the room, It was a cattle truck coming at night so as to reach the stockyards in the morning. I woke alone to the rattle coming up the road, trying to get a little nap before they arrive, springing like a bow from my bed, knowing I had responsibilities. As I donned work clothes and boots, the orange running lights and diesel growl outside my window reminded me of martians landing searching my house for signs of human life.
All they would find is a lone woman, with boots, a shotgun she knew how to use, and a kitchen that still smelled faintly of cinnamon.
Still, most days this life surpassed one spent with business people in starched shirts and hair and shiny shoes, people that appear as if their entire person was dry cleaned and pressed, not just their suit. Monotone people who seldom exceed the speed limit, seldom take risks, their visages as pasty and pale as a pie that's been taken from the oven too soon. Not I. I wanted to move, to fix, to build to solve. I would just rather not do it when it's 10 degrees below zero.
The driver backs around, turning the trailer with a gentle sigh of air brakes, up to the wooden chute there at the barn. Within came the muffled grunt of the cattle that were being sold. Outside of the lumbering truck and its driver and the cattle, we were alone. No cars, no help, the earth hanging suspending in space, cooling, wearing only a thin veil of woodsmoke. The wind cut my face, a blade that only stroked the skin, not cutting it, my hands aching as I stroked my thighs with them, trying to stir warmth back into dormant skin.
Oh, how I longed to just go back to bed, the rustle of cotton, the panting whisper of breath, the predation of the night assuming a hundred avatars of dreams. No cows, no work, simply the house, still and quiet, as if marooned in space by the dwindling of day. The truck long gone, the sounds outside fallen to a low fragmentary pitch. A coyote's howl at the indignation of clouds that cover the moon, no other sound made; prey gone into hiding, insects dead with cold, everything else assuming their own mantle of hibernation or predation.
But there was work to be done.
Hooves rattled in the trailer as it rocked and swayed, cattle moving with the chaos of their own confusion. All that was left was one lone cow, a young one who would go to a neighbor's farm for breeding stock. She stood forlorn in the fog of her own shadow, form turning as insubstantial as mist. She gazed at me as if she knew what was happening, looking at me with that ample, benign abstruseness of cattle or of gods, before turning and vanishing into space.
It's hard to decide which ones to keep and which to let go. Love, life and longing, a helix viewed by eyes that see with hesitant, hungry fire. Decisions. We took from the land that which we needed to survive, giving something back, yet there is still in me that sense of loss, even as I knew it was inevitable, as are so many inevitable things.
The door on the cattle truck closes with a profound finality, isolating them, isolating me, as I watch it drive off. All that is left is to go back into an empty house to curl up in the guest room, the neatly made bed in the master bedroom a paradox within four walls redolent of long abandoned warmth.
That farm is long sold, tools replaced by others which would draw their own blood as I learned to live and work again. The tiny farm house was cleaned and made ready for sale, sun shining in on polished floors as undisturbed as frigid pools, underneath the overhanging branches of shrouded furniture.
But though my only cows now are my neighbor's, little else as changed I think as drive into town for supplies. On the way to the city I pass through small towns that make up a country landscape, tenacious clusters of farms strung along a lonely river, old barns, listing and tumbling down, gone the way of the ancestors who built them long go, going West, to dust.
As I reach the hardware store, I saw one person in a t-shirt with a firearm picture on it, as I looked for what I needed. I looked in his eyes as we passed in the aisle, like mine, with small lines around the corners, from squinting happily into the sun and the wind, sighting something through a small piece of glass. Eyes that do not see themselves as prey, not today, simply happy to be out and about, free to go our own way, unfettered. Noting my Browning ball cap, we nodded at each with a knowing smile and headed out to our trucks.
I still work too often out in the cold, and there are still many nights where I only get only a few hours of sleep before I catch the red eye out for work, or jump on a plane sent to fetch me, watching the world come into a caffeine induced clarity that does not bode well for the sandman. Nights, where I'm not woken by the sound of cattle trucks, but by a phone, a voice on the other end speaking with an impersonal dry cadence I know is more protection than uncaring, and I must quickly pull myself from bed, gathering my things, limbs wooden with the regret of lost slumber.
Sometimes I come home and simply drop my clothes at the door, too exhausted to put them in the laundry, pouring a half inch of whiskey in a glass and flinging it back with a gesture that puts behind me all the suffering I have seen, tossing it back and away, leaving only the taste of smoke on my tongue, a scent that clings to me even after I shed my clothes. Then I pick up the phone and call the one that I can let it all out to. He listens, just as he holds me, without judgement.
It's not always an easy life, yet, like that previous life, I wouldn't change it for the world, whatever the outcome. For with this life has come purpose and hope, solid friendships and the trusting kind of love that watches over me, guarding me, even as I stand alone. Endings are always beginnings, even as the wind blows.
The winds still blow from west on the prairies, wailing a hymn of our mortality. Our remoteness stands guard over a vulnerability heightened by solitude. Yet in this season between hope of rain and hard winter, comes peace, even as outside, the air stills, windless cold that only heightens the heart's heat.