Sunday, November 05, 2006

Red Rivers

In 4 days, we drove from the Red River of the North, which separates ND from MN, to the (?real) Red River that separates OK and TX. This last is the one of the song: “ and the cowgirl/boy that loves you so well”.

The sugar beet farming dominated the landscape for a big part of the first day. We saw piles of beets with the pilers near them, and the last few beet trucks hurrying in. We passed several more of American Crystal Sugar’s processing plants. It was an odd feeling to look at all this and know exactly what was going on. Usually, we see factories or crops and can only guess. We saw round bales of dried corn stalks in the corn fields. When I looked that up, it turns out that baling the corn is one way of using it when drought has prevented full ears from forming. It would not be worth threshing the corn in that case, but it can be used as cattle feed as long as it is tested for nitrates. Corn is a nitrate slurper and droughty corn can have a concentration that is not good for cattle.

We still aren’t sure what soybeans look like in the field, and suspect that the shortish corn with a very bushy tassel and not much for ears is sorghum. We also passed a number of cotton fields as we neared the OK border.

Kansas has a strip of fairly hilly and very rocky land that is called the Flint Hills. The ledge shows through the topsoil like a boney NH filed, but the rocks are softer so they are smoother. In this area is the Pipestone National Historic Site. Here the Native Americans chipped out a red stone for their pipes called catlinite. It is “a type of red, metamorphosed mudstone (argillite) rock occurring in a matrix of Sioux quartzite”, to quote Wikipedia, and is named for the painter George Catlin whose portraits of Native Americans often showed the pipes made from it. The NPS has had it in trust for all tribes since 1934 and only the NA are allowed to dig it and only by hand. We did not go see it, alas.

We spent the first night in Ortonville MN, just north of Madison MN which is the Lutefisk ( of the US\.. We are right smack in the country of Lake Wogebon: Tollefson’s Funeral home, and the political sings all have the right names. When I was taking the scale tickets from the beet trucks, many of the drivers are Scandinavian looking and I imagined that some of them who were a little shy were the bachelor farmers. Lutefisk is either cod or its relatives, cured by soaking in lye. Similar to salt cod in general, it requires a lot of soaking to be edible, and sounds like something you ought to eat because it is customary, not because it is tasty. And of course, since it takes hours and days of soaking, Momma will be cranky if you don’t. I haven’t eaten it yet.

Further down the road, we came to Le Mars KS, which is the Ice Cream Capital of the world. I wonder if there is a book about these claims. Drayton ND claimed to be the northern catfish capital of the US, and Ocala FL claims to be the Horse Capital of the US ( and so does Lexington KY). Who decides these things and is there a governing body to control it? has interesting lists of these claims. There are, for example, 3 blueberry capitals of the world,
Blueberry Capital of the World" - Cherryfield, ME
Blueberry Capital of the World" - Hammonton, NJ
Blueberry Capital of the World" - South Haven, MI

The story with Le Mars is that Fred Wells started making ice cream, began to sell it in the area and then sold the name and the company to another company. When he regretted getting out of the business and wanted to start up again, he couldn’t use Wells (although it is on there now, he must have bought them out). He ran a contest and the name Blue Bunny was the winner. Look for it in your local freezer cases.

It’s different driving north to south, the states are much wider than they are tall, and the differences between climates and crops and land forms is compressed somewhat. I saw more fields that were only good for cattle, and sadly many with out much grass at all. There was a very smelly 100 miles in Nebraska that seemed devoted entirely to raising hogs, the long low buildings set off from anything, acres of corn fields to feed them, trucks of them going off to the sausage factory. It must be time to clean out the barns because pig manure was going on the fields. I guess I am not enough of a hog farmer to like that smell the way I do cow and horse poop.

Crossing into OK, the land has brushy trees everywhere, I think this is why the classic cowboy chaps were invented. Chasing a cow in this brush would be hard on the legs and it isn’t even the true “chaparral” that has spines. It would be hard to find the cows too. For once, the land did change when we went over the state line, the dirt went to red. I remember some movie about the great land race when the Oklahoma Territories where opened up to homesteaders, and it was in flat land, no trees. Must have been in some other place. In the older towns, there are a lot of craftsman style bungalows with outsized porch posts. As though the wind might take them away. A lot of the roofs are hipped and fairly steep, in one area they had an open small gable with a vent. A good way to cope with heat, and the precursor to the present day affectedly French chateauettes with equally steep hipped roofs. I saw a lot of them in FL and they are here too, everywhere people have enough money.

Texas, down 281 is also rolling and brushy, and mostly only fit for cattle. 281 follows the Chisolm trail, whoopee ty yi ooo, git along little doggies. The closer we get to the Hill Country the more actual hills we see. And more trees and bigger trees. The road cuts show that the yellow sandstone has only a thin layer of topsoil on it. The trees look stunted to me, they are oaks at any rate, and appear to be the same as the great live oaks in FL minus the Spanish moss and never achieving the spread of the FL ones. There are a lot of junipers too, which are as tall as the oaks, and anywhere people haven’t removed it, big fat cactus plants with leaves as big as dinner plates. They are an utterly unfamiliar looking plant, like something out of a Road Runner cartoon.

We spent the last night at Walmart in Bowie, TX. It was not where the mapping program said it was, causing some irritated moments at the end of a long day. I like the process of figuring out where I am and where stores are, and am devoted to maps in general. Maps, that is, that have the names of all streets on them. In a car, turning around and back tracking is pretty easy, it really only hurts some part of my ego. Probably the same part of my ego that thinks asking for directions is cheating on some obscure game of “Find-it”. But deeper than that is the low-level fear of looking out of place, being visibly a stranger in a new place. This is a pretty atavistic fear. In the US, people in general do not shoot the tourists, only rob them subtly, but I still feel exposed and vulnerable when I don’t know where I am and more or less where I am going, and fear that I will betray that by the way I drive or walk. Don is a more experienced full timer than I am, but this is the first time he has had a trailer, so he fears getting into a place that will be hard, if not impossible to get out of. I have gotten myself out of some pretty tight places with the Airstream, so I am a little more daring.

We use Delome’s Street Atlas USA, hitched to the GPS. I have misgivings about being distracted by the screen, and would not likely use it when by myself. In Bowie, the program guided us to the old location of Walmart, at least sort of. It actually wanted us to go down a road with only factories on it, not the best location for a Walmart. I believed the program. The new one is on the other side of town, but not easy either. We got on a limited access highway and went speeding past it, the next exit was way far away, and the correct exit not at all clear on the way back. No fun when you are tired at the end of the day. The other thing I don’t like about the program is that when the GPS is hooked up, you can’t look at other parts of the map or zoom in for more details, plus I can’t really see it very well. Maybe I will have my laptop going too so I can do what I want.

I also wish the program had more information about what we are passing. When I was young, I used to drive my mother nuts by asking “who lives there?” about certain houses we passed often. She didn’t know, of course, but I continued to ask, consumed by curiosity about what I was looking at. I guess I haven’t changed, I want to know what crop is in the field, what that machine does, what that factory makes, why this town is prospering and not that one, and always the history of the place. I usually make a list and look it up at night. Too bad I didn’t have the Internet back then to save my mother from the endless questions, but now it is an endless source of fascination to “run and find out”. That is the motto of the superhero, cobra slaying mongoose in Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Ttavi story. Rikki, like the Elephant Child in “How the Elephant Got His Trunk, is consumed by “’satiable curiosity”.

We are now pretty well settled in Spring Branch TX, at Mermaid Cove CG, and ready for the next chapter.