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An Alternate Path:

I left Eau Claire around 11:00, having stopped at KwikTrip for an iced latte and a breakfast sandwich. Headed South along Clairmont and turned off to get onto 37, not really thinking about what route I might take to the Farm. In the back of my mind I guess I figured I would take the standard route of 94->Blackriver->27->61 S. at Westby->Lancaster and on out to The Farm. But then as I got to the turn to the 94 on-ramp, I decided to take a scenic route and continued on 37 to 85 and headed on down through Durand, then on down to Nelson and across the Mississippi into Wabasha. No idea why, I just did it.

That first leg of the journey is beautiful in it’s own right, and has it’s own set of reminders. Carryville where we lived for a short time when I was in 5th and half of 6th grade over in Elk Mound. The little church we attended a few times in Rock Falls: And the sound of the Sunday night Drag Races drifting over the bluffs of the Chippewa each week during the summer. Fishing down at the Carryville bridge, ice skating on the neighbors little pond… and lots more flash through my head. I took my Wednesday dose of Dexamethazone when I first woke up at 06:00, having had a 10 hour sleep the night before. As a result, my mind is in overdrive, as it always is when the steroids hit: Hyper-aware from a sensory perspective and unable to land on any given thought for more than a few minutes. So the memories come hard and fast, in color and sharp relief.

Farms and fields, some of which contain soybeans which were not harvested. There are a few farmers I have talked to that just left the crops in the fields the fall. The constant rain making it impossible to get a combine in the field without it ending up buried to its axles in mud. That and the price they are getting sometimes does not justify the cost of running that combine plus then having to pay for delivery to the river or the railheads. A sad state of affairs. However, most fields were empty but for a bit of snow and some stubble. The uniformity is pleasing to the eye in a way, but that pleasure is dimmed by the knowledge that conventional farming is not paying the bills, is poisoning the soil and water, and driving small farmers out of business.

I get glimpses of the Chippewa River as I drive, and watch the bluffs rise and fall along the way. Durand has changed little over the years, at least to my recollection. A decent small town that does not grab at the latest fad, trying to put itself on the map. I briefly recall some time spent here back in the ’90s: A different life…a different time…good people.

Beyond Durand and heading for Nelson, the bluffs change. No longer the rolling wooded hills alone, but those mixed with stark cliff faces of sandstone that have ice flows forming in long, blurry white frozen stalactites. There is little traffic, and I make use of that fact to simply watch the terrain go my in my peripheral vision. The starkness of leafless trees and relative harsh outlines provided by winter lighting make the scenes as impressive as those in summer, but in a different way and with a different mood attached. Amazing.

I cross the river into Minnesota at Nelson crossing the bridge into Wabasha. From this point on, there is really only one road for about an hour so, the route is simple. And along the way as I pass through town after town, it occurs to me that they are losing something. I pass by most of Wabasha then Kellog followed by Weaver and Minneiska. It is when I get to Weaver that the contrast strikes me: Minneska is too small to conform: No Shopko, no McDonald’s or Walmart or KwikTrips. None of the icons that mean a town has bought into the corporate consolidation: And so they die, or become suburbs of the towns that have bought into the conformity. McMansions eating up bluff-side lots with long driveways and three car garages and outlines that show just how little real functionality has been designed into them. They are homes designed to lose their value by the time the mortgage is payed off. I know, I own one. Pleasant in many ways, but ridiculous in design. I promise myself to stop in during my trips and give someone in these towns some business. A meal at a cafe maybe…

As happens so often, a scenario presents itself in my mind; a dialogue that allows me to express to some unknown non-existent listener my frustration, anger and sadness about this consolidation. I am angry, I am frustrated, and I am sad. I wish there were something I could do to change things other than vote every two years or so. I wonder what that might be…

I have been at the farm for five hours now, having arrived at 16:40. The first half hour is always spent getting my tiny home-away-from-home ready to live in. First item on the agenda: Get the bloody heat going! Ambient temp is not too bad at around 42 deg F, so heating up to tolerable at 50 or so only takes an hour. Getting it to a comfortable 60 or 62 will take overnight. The floor is concrete in here with knee walls running up four feet on the South and West side and 2 feet on the North and East sides which face the interior or the barn. All that concrete heats slowly, about a week if truth be told.

Second item: Get the two bags of stuff that come with me out of the truck and into the milk house. A large soft-sided bag that contains clothes I travel with, my medications and various medical equipment used to track vitals: A blood pressure monitor, thermometer, tens unit and a few other miscellaneous items. The other bag carries two laptops, phone charging equipment, a terra-byte sized backup drive, tablet and charger and various paperwork I still have to give attention too. Both bags are technically way beyond what I am supposed to be carrying, but I make due…

Third item: Organize. Turn on the water, fire up the pilot on the oven, get a pot of water going on the stove to bring humidity up, fill up and plug in the water heater for the tea I drink incessantly. Put clothes away, unlock the varmint gun and hang it where it is handy. Get items out of the fridge that I don’t like cold. Go through any mail that has arrived at the farm for Hurricane Hills (mostly just junk and advertisement) .

Fourth Item: Get connected. Get my main laptop plugged into the various peripherals that I use and fire it up. Ensure a decent network connection, check email and respond to those that require it.

Rest: Generally, by the time I have accomplished these tasks, I need a half hour to just walk around a bit, then sit, then repeat. The drive and the carrying of things along with the desire to just get settled in and thus the concerted effort to finish up has exhausted me. It will take me a bit to recover. This is where my mind again shifts into hyper-drive, flitting from one unrelated subject to another.

By 18:00 the temp is tolerable, things are sorted more or less and those first four tasks are done. There is a good half gallon of water in the air from the coffee pot on the stove, so that gets turned off until morning. I decide to write a bit, which is what has led to this post. I get as far as just before this interlude and am having trouble writing and am a bit hungry. Time for some tomato soup and a toasted cheese sandwich. I think through the steps I have to take, forcing myself to stay on track though my mind is itching to wander off again. I manage to get the sandwich made and the soup to a simmer, having added a fist full of chopped onion to the soup to give it some flavor, and step away. A half hour later, I realize the soup is about right and the sandwich is still good and warm, having sat in the pan next to the soup. I shut down the stove and move the pan of soup and the sandwich to the table.

Another half hour has passed as I began writing this interlude. The soup is now tepid and the sandwich room temp. Damn! I hate the God Damn steroids! Oh well, I eat it all and it tastes good.

I take my evening medications, adding a brownie to the mix to take the edge of the Dex high and address a rather stark ache in my back. If I am lucky, it will make me tired and let me get a couple of hours of sleep come early morning too. Gotta love those home made pain remedies.

My mind is again drifting. I will continue down the Mississippi when I can concentrate again…

Those little towns that die: They are all over the place. Closer to our farm, there are many. They all tell the same story. The town next door got a Wallmart, a Shopko and a CVS. Everyone starts to shop at those one-stop shopping places, spending money on gas and spending time to get to them because they are new and big an bright and shiny. And they offer some great deals too. And of course they stop at Hardee’s for the kids and the Big Liqueur store to buy a 24 pack or two because it is a dollar cheaper than if they went to the store in their little town. And so it goes….

Then there are a few jobs at a small to medium sized plant that gets put up by some conglomerate that offers a 80/20 health care plan, so the farmers that are not doing construction on the side take off-shift jobs in that neighboring town. And the little town they used to go to for gas, groceries and a few beers becomes quiet, and then empty…. It is like watching Autumn arrive, but instead of leaves, it is people and shops and livelyhoods that drift down from the branches and stems that make up a community. Like the leaves, the people drift about on a wind of part time and temporary jobs. Maybe they get hired on permanent, but their is nothing really permanent in our Big Box world. Layoffs are almost inevitable sooner or later. And so people drift on the wind of Wall Streets drive for shareholder value added. People are just tools for making money. The workforce nothing more than a set of numbers in the database of the human resources department.

And then the little town is nothing but a place one has to slow down to get through, the main street lined with boarded up windows and cracked sidewalks. Old style houses that need paint and front porch steps. Nobody cares except the few who still live there; mostly because they have lived there for their whole lives. The bars are still there though, filled with old and young alike. The bars still do OK. The food is not bad at most of them, and for some, it beats sitting at home and watching the tube. Hell, one can sit at the bar and watch now days. They all have a flatscreen or two.

And so it goes…. places Grandpa and I stopped at while going to get a load of feed are now nothing but memories of an eleven or twelve year old from near a half century ago. I forget how distant those memories really are. Temporal cognizance has never been my forte. I know where I am, but seldom do I grasp in any real way ‘when’ I am… .

I did finally sleep for a few hours. Waking up, having some breakfast, contemplating what I might get done. I went and did what I could and by two in the afternoon, my body had had enough, but my mind wouldn’t shut down. I sat and wrote this with a sense of melancholy that even being on the farm and tripping on Dex could not overcome. Another day or two and this will pass. Just like those little towns… they will pass. Time to move on I guess.