Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Sugar Beets

The high plains roll and flatten, run up into a line of hills along the Missouri, and then flatten again. We are driving the blue roads, the state highways, zigzagging first North then East through the small towns. The farming goes from cattle range and perilously dry hay fields to more and more crops, and more and more water. In some places, I don’t see any new hay bales, only the blackened big rolls of last year’s crop. I also see a lot of fields that look as though they once held cattle, but are now empty, and I imagine that they have had to sell the cattle off. I realize that what I can see from the road is not a statistically good sampling of what is going on, but it doesn’t look good. It must have rained in ND in the last 2 weeks, there is a fine new growth of bright green grass, probably too late for some. We see many abandoned farms and some that are on the edge, swallowed up by agribusiness. The eastern side of ND is full of small ponds and sloughs with ducks and cattails, and there is standing water in the corners of fields, and places where the crops have been drowned. If the drought came here, it is over now. I saw a flock of huge birds, white bodies and black wings wheeling up out of a slough. I wish they were whooping cranes, but they might have been snow geese or even white faced ibis.

Another change is the trees.. Where the buffalo roamed, there are only trees in the bottomlands. Gradually as we go north and east, the geometry of open range becomes rectangles of fields that are edged in trees planted to break the terrible wind and keep the dirt on the fields. Around a house or farmyard, the windbreaks are several lines of different trees, lower shrubs on the leading edge, then taller and taller, and some spruce so that the winds are deflected up and away from the house. A lot o people are rattled and upset by the constant wind here. I don’t mind it, but then seawater runs in my blood and the wind blows on the ocean too. For a farmer, it must feel as thought the wind is pulling the moisture and the topsoil up and carrying it away. At some point, we must have passed into land that would have had trees on it to begin with, but I can’t see now where that would be. That’s a kind of history that is hard to find. Maybe there is a map that shows what the land was like before the white man got out here.

We passed a sign that said continental divide. I thought that was the Atlantic/Pacific divide that runs along the Rockies. But apparently the rivers in this area run north into Hudson’s Bay, not south to the Gulf of Mexico. That is technically the Atlantic, I would have thought. I suppose that it does change the history of the place, making it more of a piece of Canada than other places. Winnipeg is only 90 miles away, and the border is just 30 miles north of here. The 49th parallel is a pretty arbitrary line in the sky after all.

We pulled into Grand Forks and plopped ourselves in the Walmart parking lot. There were a number of other rigs there, come to do the same thing, and the next morning at 8:00 we all walked across the road to the employment company to get signed up and shown a safety video. About half of the people there looked like us, retired RVers looking for a quick buck, the other half looked to be younger, and a little down on their luck, also looking for a quick buck. It is not a big office and we pretty much overwhelmed the staff. The RVers get a free hook up site as part of the pay, but as we are generally older, they have to get a look at us. We had a phone conference earlier, in which the guy said no canes, no walkers, this is hard work, 12 hours of standing in the cold. Apparently people still show up unable to do the work, wishful thinking. Friends of ours from Hart Ranch helped us make this connection and we went through the process and got placed in the same town with them, Drayton ND at the city park campground. We still as of Tues. have not seen the plant nor do we know what our actual job will be.

Some History

A sugar beet (Beta vulgaris L)is a big relative of the red beet, and it is white and can weigh between 2 and 4 pounds

Quoting from Wikipedia:

As early as 1590, the French botanist Olivier de Serres extracted a sweet syrup from beetroot, but the practice did not become common. The Prussian chemist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf used alcohol to extract sugar from beets (and carrots) in 1747, but his methods did not lend themselves to economical industrial-scale production. His former pupil and successor Franz Carl Achard began selectively breeding sugar beet from the White Silesian fodder beet in 1784. By the beginning of the 19th century, his beet was approximately 5–6% sucrose by weight, compared to around 20% in modern varieties. Under the patronage of Frederick William III of Prussia, he opened the world's first beet sugar factory in 1801, at Cunern in Silesia.

The development of the European beet sugar industry was encouraged by the Napoleonic Wars. In 1807 the British began a blockade of France, preventing the import of cane sugar from the Caribbean, and in 1813, Napoleon instituted a retaliatory embargo. By the end of the wars, over 300 beet sugar mills operated in France and central Europe. The first U.S. beet sugar mill opened in 1838.

To this day, the terms used to describe the processing into sugar are French, more about that later, I hope I can get a chance to see it.


The first sugar beet refinery in North Dakota was established near Drayton

I suspect that the loss of Cuban sugar fields to the US sugar industry had an effect too.

Today in the Red River Valley of the North, we are working for a cooperative of 2,000 farmers who have 430,000 acres under beets which will produce something like 8 million tons of beets. In the field, the beets look lush and green, the leaves much bigger than red beet greens and lacking the distinctive red stem. We see a lot of empty fields, beets already “prepiled”, and in others the machines that pull up, shake off , chop the tops off of the beets and throw them into trucks that are driving alongside. The machines get 6 rows at a time, then the truck goes roaring off to dump and come back for another load. I am used to seeing pretty minimal lanes going into fields, but here they are well graded, packed gravel roads. The drivers get paid by the load so they hustle, and the dirt from the beets is all over the road making it very slippery.

There is a balancing act here that puts the harvesting of this crop into a hectic 2 weeks where 1,000s of people come in to drive truck and pile and then go off to something else afterwards. The beets need to stay in the field until they have as much sucrose in them as possible. Since beets are biennial, they will flower on the second year, and spend the first year storing up energy . The sugar plant can’t process 8 million tons all at once, so the beets are piled up when the weather gets cold enough to keep them from rotting. Eventually they will freeze and stay frozen until needed by the plant. This is the process , the piling up, that we will be working for. I know some of you have an image of me stooped over the beets in the field pulling them one by one and humming Woody Guthrie songs, and although I don’t know what I will be doing, it won’t be that.

I now know that I will be doing sample taking, collecting a 25lb bag of beets from randomly selected loads. I will be standing outside, by one of the 8 big pilers. I will go in on Sat AM and see what this is all really like.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Last Stand at Hart Ranch

The weather has cooled down, it has rained all day (!) at least once. The brown hills have greened up and the poor scorched lawns of the campground are green and lush again. The nights are cool, and we have taken down the sunscreens that covered the windows, so we can see the hills clearly again. We wear long pants and jackets in the morning, and begin to look at what we have to get done before our last day of work, finishing staining 2 cabins, build new covers for two of the hot tubs, and finally finish the outside of the pool fence.

I have been working on the pool fence for half of the summer, trying to be there on the early AM before too many swimmers are there to get either sprayed with water or bump into wet paint. At 8:00 AM, the water aerobics class meets. This is an older crew and the activity is tempered, there are even 3 men in the group. The leader is an enthusiastic and funny lady who keeps up a running patter of orders, encouragement and jokes. I suspect that this is a social high light. The tedious part is that they have one tape that they play every day. First some inspirational singing to stretch and warm up and then up-beat greatest hits accordion music. My Grandfather’s Clock, Clementine, Home on the Range, and so on to a brisk metronome beat. Periodically, a man’s voice comes on to say how far you have walked. For some reason, when Working on the Railroad comes on, they start to sing a long, but only at the “Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah” verse and then the Fee Fi fiddle I O. I was suddenly struck by the idea that the banjo being strummed was probably metaphorical for some thing else that was happening to Dinah. The highlight(?) for me is when they sing Daisy, Daisy. They did this for weeks before they knew that was my name, but after that I had to wave my hat and bow. This last Thursday I was ordered to appear for one last chorus and cheers and applause. You would have thought I was doing the singing. That night they drained all the water out of the enormous pool. Summer is over.

This is our last working week, we will be done by Sept 15. After Labor Day, the park has been emptying out pretty well, although not as fast as I would have expected. It is a great time of year to be here. I am anxious to get on the road, tired of the work, and I find I am tired of so many people. We are a little sad too, to be leaving what has been a great place to work and live, and the beauty of the Black Hills.

As I said before, this is the 11th largest city in SD when we are full up, and it really does feel like a city even though the sites are large and well spaced. We, as employees, are supposed to be hugely friendly to everyone, waving like the Pope as we drive around in our golf cart from job to job. I can’t wait to be somewhere that I don’t’ have to wave all the time. And smile, and do chitchat. Since we are all transients, it is hard to make any sort of connection even with those we work with. Everyone moves around and no one seems anxious to exchange addresses or emails when they leave. Some folks we will see next year when we return here to work again, others not. So it is like living in a town, but never really making any connections, although there are few that I have met that I really wanted a connection with. I seem to be just happy with work and our evenings at home, watching TV, playing with the computer or working on small fixit projects on the trailer.

I find that the prospect of leaving the Airstream and the truck here in storage for the winter is making me quite sad. We have replaced the water pump, reattached the kitchen counter which was tilting away from the wall. And I have either taken out or secured anything that mice or freezing will bother. I can’t really figure out why it makes me so sad, I think it is because living in the AS was one of the few times in my life when I could arrange my space, my day, my dinner and my destination wholly by what I wanted. No compromises, no discussions, no second guessing what would please another person, and along with that, no moments of shame when I did something wrong, and certainly no huffs, or shouting or silences or tears. Now that I have written that down, it looks like kind of a sterile existence, and it is probably inevitable that I would meet someone that I wanted to share my life with. I do like being a team, I like cooking and caring. Maybe the part that I am missing is the nest building. Since this is Don’s trailer, and he gets a little nervous when I speculate on painting all the lighting fixtures black, or doing a warm scumbled paint job so the walls don’t look like wrapping paper, I do have moments of frustration.

There is no question in my mind, however, that staying with Don is the right thing to do, and more to the point, dragging the truck and AS all the way to TX and back again is just plain silly.

We took a trip to Bear Butte, another rocky high point that got eroded into the light of day, this one is not the odd shape of Devils Tower, but it rears up out of low rolling prairie, a sort of precursor to the Black Hills. Like Devils’ Tower, it is a holy NA place, and the park education center has a lot of good displays, and explanations. I read a biography of Crazy Horse, the Sioux leader who was at the Little Big Horn disaster and was one of the last to come in and be a reservation Indian, for which he was murdered by panicky soldiers. The book was written by NA woman, Marie Sandoz, and it tells the dreadful story of the gumment’s treatment of the NA from their point of view, and in a writing style that echoes the cadences of NA language,(at least it seems that way) but also gives a sense of their world view. Not an easy book to read, but looking at the displays, I recognized many of the NA leaders and had one of those moments when a disparate collection of thoughts crystallizes, and I had a sense of the power of this place where one of the last great meetings of the tribes was held. 30,000 horses. And no clear agreement on what to do about the white man.

The weather is very windy, with spitting rain, so we did not climb to the top, we will save that for next summer.

As we drive down the highway, we both are anxious to be on the way to somewhere soon. Our next experience will be working the sugar beet harvest on the ND MN border. It will be long hard days, 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week, with very good money, but we don’t know exactly what we will be doing, or even where exactly. Should be a good adventure. I keep having snatches of folk songs about migrant workers run through my head. They pay our CG fees in any case. We will leave on the 23rd, take two days and go to Grand Forks ND where we will get our assignments.

Today is Friday, blast off in the morning. Today, in the pouring rain and wind at 47 deg., a big motor home, tan and beige with green swooshes and a PT Cruiser in matching beige for a toad pulled in. We watched them back in, and watched them hook up. Then himself walked right through our site to go to the bathhouse, er Comfort Station. Pretty typical so far. Then we looked out and they are actually washing their motorhome AND the little car in the pouring rain and wind and cold. Neither of them were dirty. I don’t understand. Now remembering that these motorhomes come with luxurious bathrooms, imagine my surprise to see himself once again cutting through our site, this time with his stuff to take a shower in the Comfort Station. Don says many of these rigs have never had the shower used in them. It seems that they would rather use the campground shower than clean their own private one. I am flabbergasted that they will wash the motorhome in the pouring rain when it doesn’t need it, but won’t clean the shower. Sputter, sputter.

Tonight we are in a free city park campground in Roscoe SD. Just us and the tired flowers. It was a very windy rainy start and the rain let up but the wind has only just slowed. No problem handling the wind, but it did lower our MPG. Roscoe is a small town, wide streets, quiet on this Sat eve, at least until the fire siren went off right in our ears, VERY LOUD, and rotating to get to everyone for miles. A lot of pickups came roaring up and two fire trucks flew off into the distance. Funny to be parked among houses in a real town after the transient and rather isolated town of Hart Ranch.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


Sturgis is a town about 25 miles northwest of here, it had a little mining and served the ranches and the tourists in a quiet way until someone dreamed up Bike Week. August 6-13.

I went to the dentist on Monday, a drive of 20 minutes, and saw over 1,000 motorcycles on the few streets I went on. They are everywhere, coughing and roaring through the city. I swear to you that there can’t possibly be any motorcycles left anywhere in the US this week. Driving with them all around is a little unnerving. Besides the noise, the whole affect is whoo-eee, we are wild and free (and full of beer and testosterone) so they might do almost anything on the street. They often travel in groups, for company and visibility and also secretly pretending to be a motorcycle gang..

The majority of them have Harley Davidsons. The American bike. Some just big and black and bad, the riders in studded leathers with long gray hair and beards, beer bellies and ample breasts barely constrained. Then there are the chopped hogs, handlebars up in the air, big tire in the back or in the front, frames lengthened or shortened, tricycles and side cars and no end to the wild color schemes, and customized accessories. They are an arresting sight, America’s love affair with machinery and engines and noise and freedom and hitting the road and all that Beat Generations stuff.

A lot of the bikes are Honda Goldwings or similar large comfortable cushy road bikes, sometimes pulling a matching tiny pop up camper. These are for the more conservative bikers who are a cleaner bunch in matching leather jackets and chaps, their paint all shined up with multiple coats of lacquer so the colors glow in the hot sun.

We have a lot of them here in the Resort, both the nitty-gritty ones who have a tent and the big motor homes with a lift on the back for a motorcycle. Top of the line is a Prevost motorhome (1million $$$ plus, custom, usually looks like a fancy whorehouse inside) and an enormous cargo trailer with a Harley and a Corvette inside. Except for the amazing noise (I keep looking for the helicopter or the train) they have been very well behaved. I gather that there is hardly a patch of shade in the area that is not charging people to stay in for this week, and at jacked up prices. A lot of people who come to Bike Week every year become members here just to have a place to stay for the week, and it works out to be cheaper that way.

I didn’t go into downtown Sturgis; they have the main street filled pretty much with a double row of motorcycles down the middle, a row on either side. Traffic is ridiculous. Maybe next year, I am curious to see it all. The people-watching would be fabulous. I heard of a truck driver who does nothing but run back and forth from Billings MT with semi after semi full of food to feed all those people. I imagine the beer distributors pull out every truck and bottle they can find.

North of Sturgis is what looks like a volcanic cone, pretty big, that is called Bear Butte and is sacred to the Native Americans hereabouts. There is a State park there, and I guess the bikers meet there for drunken noisy revelry which the NA’s don’t like at all and try to curtail. Probably to no avail.

This event brings in 100’s of thousands of dollars to the local economy both in actual goods and services sold and buckets of sales tax on the vendors. Anyone who sells anything remotely associated with motorcycles is here, has to be here. Even our little store at the campground has shirts and hats and head scarves (to keep the bugs out of your hair or teeth) for sale. I want a tank top that is black with cut outs for my love handles all edged in orange with flames and a heart (for Hart Ranch) in jewels on the front. But there is absolutely NO place I would dare wear it except on a bike here, this week and that’s not happening anytime soon.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Tourist Moments

A bus trip to see fireworks at Mt. Rushmore.

I’m not sure that those faces are really an improvement on the raw mountain, but it is so puffed up with patriotic fervor, flags and earnestness that I hardly dare complain. We went up once early on in the year, and paid our parking fee, which is good for a year. There is no actual entrance fee, and although it has some kind of national landmark status, no tax dollars are spend on it. There is a restaurant, a huge gift shop, and tours of the artist’s studio and etc. Somehow, those faces look like a stage set, as though they are cut outs put up close so they look far away, no way to get a sense of scale without climbing up there, which is forbidden and way too scary anyway. Mr. Borglum went up in a boson’s chair, and the dynamite came up the same way. He was certainly an obsessed madman to have given his life to such a project. There is a film about him and exhibits of photos and artifacts.

The fireworks show is definitely world class, and has a reputation, so hordes of people come and the parking gets full up early, and there are cars all the way down the mountain on the sides of the road, with hundreds of people walking up. For this reason, we go on a bus from the campground, leaving at 3:30 although the fireworks don’t begin until 9:00. And the higher we get, the rainier it gets. So we sit in the bus until it clears out about 6. Everyone and his brother is here, dressed in garbage bags or clear Mt Rushmore plastic raincoats, or carrying Mt. Rushmore umbrellas. As we drive up the mountain we pass miles of cars and people walking up in the rain.

The rain does stop and we hike around with our chairs and our picnic and sit off to the right of the stage. There is entertainment from a Native American singer who is singing like an opera star, and part of a military band from a Nebraska Air Force base, and some piped in rock and roll. The veterans are asked to stand and a few administrators and politicians have a few well-chosen words to say. At two points in the program we have a fly over by a B-52 and later a B-1 which go over very low, and fill the natural amphitheater with jet noise and with the huge size of the planes. At the end of America the Beautiful sung by the NA opera star, the stone faces begin to very slowly light up. There are huge spotlights in banks among the trees, and they go on at about a 30 count, so slow that you aren’t sure at first that they are lighting up. The angle of the lights is very different from daylight, so the faces are a bit changed.

There is a very long pause. I don’t know if the fireworks were wet or the matches (or whatever they use.) It may have been a dramatic effect, having us all wait so long. Then bam, screech, pow, the sky above the heads goes wild. There is canned music and the fireworks match the music. Enormous shells, hearts and showers of gold and silver, kabooms, and fountains on the rock above. It went on for maybe 25 minutes, and was really terrific, even if our necks were a little stiff with looking up.

There were supposedly 30,000 people there, and it took 2 hours for enough of them to get off the mountain so that our bus could go. I don’t know if I would go again, but the show was on a par with the fireworks that I watched on TV over Boston.

Wind Cave

For a long weekend, we took the Airstream and went south to Wind Cave National Park. The line of rocks around the outside of the Black Hills is limestone, and there are a number of commercial caves you can go into. Wind Cave is well to the southern end of the Black Hills, we saw where the hills ended in rolling prairie.

The cave is huge, miles and miles of passageways in the limestone that have been eroded by ancient water. Less than half of it has been explored even now; it claims to be the biggest cave in the world if you count the passageways all in a line, although they intertwine like noodles. We go on a tour, along pathways and stairs put in by the CCC. They carried the cement down in inner tubes slung over their shoulders.

Since this is a dry cave, the usual stalactites and stalagmites are missing, instead there is boxwork, four, five six and many sided boxes where harder sediment filled cracks in the limestone and then the limestone eroded, just leaving the “cracks”. The rock is reddish with iron, and the shapes of the sides are sometimes sharp and sometimes smooth, but it all feels a little like a journey through some giant creature’s innards. It is 52 degrees in there, and we are glad of a sweater which makes a nice change from the 100 plus temperatures above.

The park also includes a big chunk of prairie that we drive through, seeing more buffalo, and antelope. The campground is without services as I prefer, although there are rather more people there than I would have expected.

We go off geocaching in the area, lunch on a dirt road that looks way down to the southern mountains, a hot climb up to a ridge that over looks a wide green park. We drive through an abandoned homestead, the house, the barns and sheds, pieces of cars and tractors, and a crumbling corral. Those folks seemed to do well for a little, but I think a stream that went through dried up. Some of the old abandoned homesteads I’ve seen were clearly in a place that no one could have survived. Out in the open, no water nearby, only the thin prairie grasses rolling on for miles around, not even one tree for shade or wind shelter. So many people came out here believing the hype of the speculators and the railroads, thinking that you could actually farm out here. It works for grazing if you are lucky and have thousands of acres and water, but not for farming without expensive and extensive irrigation.

Work here at the camping ranch continues in a varied pattern of short-term quick fix repairs and long term construction projects. There have been several days where the temperature was over 100 degrees, once 112, and the wind blows at you like a giant hair dryer until you can hardly breathe.