Field trip with elevator

Telluride Daily Planet,  Sunday, October 21, 2012

Circa 1972, my father decides that the three of us (my mom and I — the rest in college) are going on a field trip to visit a wheat farming family in eastern Washington. He has read of an exchange program and wants to go since he has always dreamed of farming. We guess. He never says why, he just says it will be beneficial and we’re going. Eventually this farming couple will come and stay with us and learn about Seattle and our lives (what on Earth will they learn?).
It’s important to note that we are not a family that goes on field trips or vacations. Yes, there are a few summers we borrow a friend’s cabin on Orcas Island (heavenly). And there’s a recent trip back to France when dad wants to save money so we go military standby up to Alaska where we have to wait two days to get on a flight east on a cargo plane carrying about 200 wounded veterans — before another long delay to Frankfurt. The trip later becomes known to me as the Silverberg trip because of the science fiction novel my mother unknowingly buys me, the sex scenes of which are so graphic, I am staring into space much of that trip. Because I really have no idea.

Now, in the back seat of the ‘66 Cutlass (the same car I drove into Telluride in ‘84), presumably in my light blue jersey pantsuit, the one with a belted zip-up top and bellbottoms, my father is presumably expounding on his favorite topics. The corruption of large pharmaceutical companies. The problem with the Federal Reserve Bank. He is way ahead of his time on certain themes.

This wheat farm is some gigantic number of acres (40,000? 100,000?) and is family owned and run by a very warm couple getting on in years. Everything on the spread is tidy and clean, which is one reason it instantly appeals to my father. These are obviously people with straightforward morals that have to do with there being a right way and a wrong way for doing everything, and if god is in their equation somewhere, well, dad forgives this because of the orderly and productive look of their land. Because although he marries a Catholic, dad is a scientist. Not a Christian one, just a scientist. Not by vocation, but by spiritual inclination.

At breakfast, the difference in lifestyle hits me. One daughter, the one in nursing school, comes home in the summer to be the staff cook. The means she sets her alarm for 3:30 a.m. to make breakfast, which is served at 6, which includes of a platter of steaks, bacon, eggs, and homemade, yeasted white rolls. A platter of steaks? I cannot believe I am stabbing at one with a fork and slamming it on my plate at the crack of dawn. With two more of these meals to go in a 24-hour period, it’s obvious why she’d need to ditch the family business for the relative cakewalk of being a nurse.

Then us city folk tour the barns, learn about the combines, about how farmers like these survive through government subsidies, about fears of losing their farms and taxes that are eating them alive. About weather that is uncontrollable and potentially devastating. Then, watching the sky grow dark with clouds, I start to like this field trip. The endless, rolling fields of ripening wheat stir me. How do they do all this, I wonder, and who has taught them?

We are told one of the hands will give us a silo tour and so we get into his truck. He’s probably 18 or 19, faded jeans, white T-shirt, and quiet, but only on the outside. Personally, I can’t take my eyes off him — until we get into the elevator and he faces us, and my eyes drop. When he throws the lever and the gears grind us upwards, I start to feel something … something Silverberg. Whatever he is sending out permeates the small space and by the time the elevator arcs to an abrupt halt I am a converted and willing claustrophobe.

Dad talks the mechanics of the big heap of yellow wheat with the cool farmhand whose heat is scorching me. Stepping out of the grain silo, boy-man catches my eye and locks on me for a split second. What is this field trip about again?

Now, at 6 a.m. in the present day in the San Juan Mountains, I am outside on the gravel drive, facing east as Venus blazes in the sky like a beacon while elk bugle their pan flutes just a stone’s throw away in the nearby forest. The air, alive, stirs me.

Life is full of field trips, is it not? Every day, sometimes every hour. One just has to be open to what they might really be about.

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