5-TON (a kinship with Fred Eaglesmith)
(a kinship with Fred Eaglesmith)
By Bill Stork, DVM
Kenny Chesney writes:
No shoes, no shirt, no problems Blues what blues hey I forgot them The sun and the sand and a drink in my hand with no bottom and no shoes, no shirt, and no problems!
Mr. Chesney has six Academy of Country Music awards, including Entertainer of the Year from 2005-2008. He has a collection of six CMA (Cross Marketing Association) awards. Mr. Chesney travels by private jet. A convoy of Kenworths transports a small army of technicians, stage hands and construction workers who assemble his road production in football stadiums from Green Bay to Dallas. His No Shoes Nation is to millennials in ball caps what Buffet’s “Parrotheads” are to boomers in grass skirts. They party for hours before Mr. Chesney takes the stage. His concerts are unbridled barefoot, boat drink, and bikini “perpetual weekend” affairs.
A self-made star and son of a school teacher and beautician, he can always be found in the cheap seats during sound check. All-the-better to appreciate and play to the hard working folks who pay his salary.
Fred J. Eaglesmith writes:
Well he stops his horse, to get a light and the water pours out of his hat. He’s been out in the rain most of the night and ought to be getting back. He‘s been thinking about the colour of her hair and the touch of her hand. And the way she quietly smiles whenever she looks at him.
But he only gets into town twice a month and he gets out as fast as he can. He don't have a phone so he can't call her up and he never knows where she is. She smells like flowers and perfume and tobacco and gin. He's been in love a couple of times before, but never quite like this. He's been in love a couple of times before, but never quite like this.
Fred and his Traveling Steam Show play small bars, listening rooms and theaters from Texas to Canada, and all over Europe. They have recently upgraded to a 1990 Bluebird Motor Coach. It’s been gutted and retrofitted with pumps and filters to run on waste fryer oil by the chief mechanic, bus driver and songwriter Fred J. Eaglesmith. They do not tour in support of albums; the road is where they live.
He is known to pull 4-8 hour shifts behind the wheel and play impromptu 4-song concerts for fans who recognize his rig in the Wal-Mart parking lots where they rest. Multi-day “Fred Fests” feature concerts by singers and writers by night and a winner-take-all band-vs-fans street hockey tournament by day.
En route to a show 250k west of Calgary, the Bluebird ground to a hopeless halt. Matt and Kori panicked. No well-prepared Canadian farm boy would leave home without a spare; Fred changed the transmission on the shoulder. Grease wedged under fingernails and knuckles skinned, the show must go on.
A student of Buddhism, philosopher, painter, and poet, Fred has been celebrated, decorated, studied and honored in three tribute albums and numerous college courses. He builds towering tangible images, only to apply them to gut-wrenching metaphor. His songs have been covered by Toby Keith, Miranda Lambert, Alan Jackson and The Cowboy Junkies. In many cases, the covers are note-for-note and every inflection intact. At open mics in coffee shops and microbreweries, he has been imitated by folk and alternative artists too numerous to conceive.
In the fall of 2012, recording industry executives offered to fly him to Nashville. They would put him up in the Vanderbilt and honor his contributions, at the Mother Church of Country Music, the Ryman Auditorium. He was flattered but declined. It fell on the same date as a sold out bar gig in Duluth Minnesota… for 85 Fredheads.
“That was the excuse I gave ‘em,” Fred told a sparse but loyal crowd at the High Noon Saloon in Madison. “Those damn punk kids checkin’ their Facebook status and snappin’ selfies don’t get my music anyway,” in his road-weathered growl, always cordial to a fault.
Fred was born on a dairy farm in Southern Ontario, Canada. He tells stories of balin’ hay and farming with two tractors, and one battery. It was clear that 80 acres and two dozen cows could not support nine kids and two parents. At age 16 Fred hopped a train, bought a guitar and commenced writing songs about trains, cars, farms and love… lost.
At a time particularly desperate, he was forced hide his truck and tractor in his neighbor’s machine sheds in order to elude bill collectors. To his name, all he could claim was a small pile of rosewood scraps, two blank cassettes… and a friend named Willie P. Bennett.
Fred hit “record and play” on the old Panasonic. He and Willie played and sang to the built-in microphone. I’d give the tires off my truck for a copy of those tapes.
Brothers Louvin and Everly sing in voices tighter than the DNA that binds them and richer than foam on a Guinness draught. Harmonious ain’t the first word that comes to mind when Willy and Fred conspire. Willie’s voice and mandolin stands behind and to the side of Fred, like the big brother who’ll kick your ass. Willie’s off-kilter echo of “There are some roads, I wish I’d traveled” underpins the angst of Fred’s lament of a woman “he wished he’d never known” like the midnight dream when you catch your next breath. No less blood-curdling than when Mary Clayton stepped up, clinched her fists and melted the microphone screaming “rape, murder are just a shout away” behind Mick Jones’ apocalyptic guitar line on “Give me Shelter”.
Fred and Willie recorded 90 minutes of original songs then drove to town to play on the street corner for tips in a tin can. When they'd sold the rosewood box and cassette tapes, they bought more cassettes and played until they had enough money to book a road gig.
Fred’s monologues on everything from border crossings to Buddhism are Seinfeld funny. He is not, on the other hand, known for writing happy songs. “Well the phone broke the silence, like the screamin’ of a siren” he laments a love looking to prove just how strong that she could be. “I just stare through the door screen, watch the cars come down the pike, their lights against the sky like a drive-in movie.” The rest of the world gets on with their lives, oblivious.
“Son, would you help me on this platform, I’m not so good at climbing stairs,” he paints an image of a decorated veteran from “what they called the Great War” who comes to watch trains “darn near every Sunday”. “Number 47, she’s a good one, Number 63 sings like a bird, Number 29, that’s the one they call The Rocket…" I beg you to buy the “Balin" CD. If you can get from cover to cover with two dry eyes, I will refund your $16.95.
“I saw Big Bear Henry and Two Turtle Jim, Rolling into town, they was riding on the rims, Sold their tires to buy themselves A couple cases of beer,” sounds like just another Saturday night in Decatur, Illinois, for Doug Quintenz and Dave Randolph.
Fred is never more desperate than “Rough Edges”:
“Cracks in your windshield, holes in your life, and you're tryin' to get home, before it gets light, and your old five ton truck don't run good no more, barely gets up those hills with your foot to the floor.”
The “old 5 ton truck” that made an indelible impression on me sat at the end of a ¼ mile farm lane, 43 miles east of St. Louis, high atop a ridge overlooking Shoal Creek, in 1974. It is the 1950s International stock truck on my Aunt Mary and Uncle Kelsey’s farm. A bent piece of fence wire through the dash worked the choke. Three hard pumps and a Hail Mary and she’d backfart, blow smoke and rumble to life. If you pumped the clutch and worked the wire just right, you could keep her runnin’, first try. Burlap feed sacks covered the crumbling foam and kept the springs out of your ass where the white vinyl used to be. Two lids off an old hog feeder and four rivets kept your boots dry when you couldn’t dodge the puddles. The struts that held the big bubble fenders had long since rusted away so they waved at the neighbors as we passed.
The chickens would run short on feed coincident with the bottom of Uncle Kelsey’s last Mail Pouch long leaf chewing tobacco, and just before hay was dry enough to bale. He’d tell Aunt Mary he was gonna “show Little Bill the town”. The hills that Old Five Ton Truck could barely get up were on Pokey Road, which formed a triangle between Pocahontas, Greenville, and Old Ripley, population 108. The two corners of State 140 and County 22 were served by Garver’s Feed Mill and Rip’s Inn. (She usually was.) Once he had regaled the mill on Vietnam, Nixon and grain markets, we’d throw our two bags of layer mash on the end gate. Kelsey Dillman would kick the International into neutral and we’d tha-thump on the flat spots on the dry-rotted Firestones from the loading docks into an open spot next to the front door of the Tavern.
We’d belly up to the crown molding rubbed raw by 40 years of farmers' “table muscles”. Kelsey would throw down three 8oz Budweiser drafts from just across the Mississippi, and I’d go toe to toe with RC “from the gun”. We didn’t want Aunt Mary to think we’d been sittin’ at the bar.
As a cross-tribute to my Uncle Kelsey, Aunt Mary and Fred J. Eaglesmith, my ¾-ton Ram diesel wears the license 5 TON. (A calculated misrepresentation, as the vehicle weighs barely 7400lbs.)
I’m expecting an email from the folks at Dodge darn near any day now. En-route to down cows we have punched through snow drifts higher than the hood ornament. One memorable 4th of July the trailer hitch became the saddle horn for the dead end of a halter rope. The other was occupied by a Red Angus heifer in hot dystocia and less than impressed by our efforts to aid in the delivery of her firstborn. I was back on the “hard road” after tubing a steer who had bloated on fresh green pasture, when the Sirius went silent. I had dropped into four-wheel-drive to gun it through a drainage ditch. An airborne hunk of peat bog had skewered the antenna.
350 days a year, the 8-foot cargo bed is covered with my mobile veterinary hospital. Under the full-length door on the driver’s side are antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, sedatives and stimulants. There is a 1-foot cubic AC/DC refrigerator for vaccinations, a ham and cheese on wheat, or an occasional 6-pack. Under the passenger side coffin door is room for gallons of lubricants, laxatives, vaginal progesterone implants and two lassos. (“Bill, two rules: 1. Never carry a lasso. 2. Never learn to use it.” - Dr. Fred Kuffel. Well Doc, I’m 1 for 2.) Behind the tailgate is a drop-down door that accesses two drawers that fit rope halters, rumen pump and nasogastric tubes, a surgery kit, hoof knives and an emasculator (as in the veterinary tool, not to be mistaken for an infamous ex). Space on the sides is perfect for garbage, recycling and a Stone Ratch-a-pull calf extractor (a tool that is particularly unsettling when presented to a birthing class full of rather sensitive first-time mothers at Fort Atkinson Memorial).
As for the remaining 15 days a year, a guy likes to use his “pee-cup-truck”, as Dr. Randy Ott used to faux drawl, for R&R. Twice a year we like to explore the splendors of South West Wisconsin by horseback. This year, at Christmas, Paige asked if I could come and pick her up from college at the end of the semester. A question to which there is only one answer; though it requires some decontamination of the driver’s quarters, and removal of the Port-a-Vet.
Historically, Jason and Junior at Steve’s Car and Truck Service have obliged. After the requisite grumblin’ from the boss man, they always had a forklift that could pick up the 2200lb piece of fiberglass like the head off a dandelion. A good option that always left me feeling indebted, dependent and minus an hour and a half of travel time.
Presented with such a structural dilemma, all the son of an Operating Engineer needs is a scratch pad and John at London Lumber. With pen wedged under my Packers hat and wielding a 25-foot Stanley retractable tape, I leaned across the counter and showed John that I needed to span 18 feet and an eye bolt to hook a cable come-a-long. He looked out the window.
“How much does that rig weigh?” he asked.
“'Bout a ton or so”, answered the son of a construction worker famous for his over-engineering.
I explained that the tack room was 18” taller than the horse stalls, so I had to build a scab on the low side. I hoped the use of a carefully chosen construction term would temporarily disguise my outright ineptitude with a hammer and nails.
“Ya know Doc, I bet if you put together two LVL’s, that’d be plenty strong enough to pick that up,” he leaned on the counter and calculated. “I’d have to make sure, and we’d have to order it in for you, how soon ya need it?” he asked, fully expecting that my lack of planning was going to cause an emergency on his part.
“First week in May,” I responded. I would Google "LVL" when I got back in the truck.
“Ah heck, that’s no problem,” he promised to get back to me.
I left my number. Before I made it to my next farm call, the phone lit up, “Yeah, Doc, I got two 18-footers in the warehouse, you want us to drop ‘em off, or pick them up?”
I may someday need a favor, and I like to haul stuff, “Ah, don’t worry about that John, I’ll be by with the trailer.”
London Lumber is 2.8 miles north of Cambridge, one block west of Highway 134. Just slow down at Febock’s fallen-down barn on the east, and turn left at the London Oasis. Half the letters have fallen off the corrugated steel façade of what looks to be better spot for a haunted house. London Lumber does not Facebook or do “11% off on everything in the store”; there is no need for an obnoxious pitch man or a catch phrase. They’ve got good straight lumber and guys who know how to use it.
It is said that no one exists in a vacuum. I have been influenced by truly exemplary characters, both blood related and brothers by association. When I wear my construction cap it is with the old man over my shoulder. If you’re lookin’ at a two-hour job you want done by Sunday noon, order the materials on Monday, lay out your tools Friday night and get at it by 6:00 Saturday morning. If two 3/8 lag bolts will hold it good, you use four ½-inch carriage bolts with stainless warshers. You could probably pick up an 8-foot Porta Vet with one, but you just never know when a stray two-ton circus elephant’s gonna go down on that very spot. You might as well double- up and bolt bolt ‘em down good.
Experts say we begin to form associations in the womb. I struggled in high school Spanish, but thanks to the machinists, millwrights, mechanics and carpenters who put their feet under our dinner table, I could qualify for an honorary Ph.D. in the vernacular of the workin’ man. Former Navy Chaplain Father Bob just gives a nod and sentences me to a couple extra of “Hail Marys” when it ain’t quite level and a carefully chosen exclamation is required to move that bubble between the lines.
It’s funny how much smarter my dad is, the older I get.
“Don’t jump off the tailgate, that back’s gotta last you a lifetime,” he’d suggest in the name of self-preservation. "Just because you can get daylight under it, don’t mean you can lift it; that’s what ropes, pulleys and bucket tractors are for."
When it came time to mount the structure, I had an afternoon, and Calvin. There comes a day when Dad grabs his son around the waist to invert him and do a pile-driver, just to maintain pecking order… and the son doesn’t move. It had been a year since that day.
I was fumbling with some ropes and chains, figuring how to lift the lumber on top of the bucket tractor without dropping it on my head. I looked behind me. Calvin had military-pressed and slid the south end of the 6x10’ eighteen foot laminate onto the top of Boomer’s box stall. The north end was taller, so I threw down two guard rail timbers to get high enough to sit on top the tack room.
We’d come up with a way to tell grandpa later.
No job is complete without a little diesel smoke. With a homemade choker, I could get close enough to the tow hook on the bucket of the John Deere, and lift the back end out with the tractor.
Circumstances and my limited construction chops have made these moments painfully few. For a 17-year-old man with little time with a ratchet in his hand, Calvin has some keen construction instinct. He had cut, drilled and bolted his end without checking his phone. Save the expletives, shims and the Hail Marys, the 18-foot span was top-dead-center level; first try.
I backed the truck through the barn and Calvin gave me the “whoa” when the front eye on the vet box was directly under the 5-ton cable ratchet lift. I slow curled my fingers until he inched the tractor forward and lowered the bucket over the lift hook on the back. As I cranked the come-a-long, Calvin matched my progress with a steady hand on the lift lever, and the 1-ton piece of Fiberglass rose smoothly above the wheel wells. I pulled forward. In less than an hour, the 2014 Dodge mobile veterinary hospital had become a moving truck for a college freshman.
With accomplishment comes a swagger. I didn’t expect him to post it on Instagram, but I did want Calvin to see the Porta Vet hanging in the barn, and the truck drive away before he left for work.
The college freshman in question was, of course, my daughter, Pagie. If asked to describe her in one word, it would be: thoughtful, quietly-competitive, compassionate, over-achieving and tolerant. With a father’s objectivity and no regard for the overuse of hyphenated adjectives, I add selfless and soft-spoken.
At some point, Paige must have realized that she'd soon find herself facing 20 hours on the road with dad.
Knowing that early May is the vortex of the tsunami which is “busy season” at Wisconsin Equine, Paige asked, “Is there any way Sheila might come along when you come to pick me up?”
I could have not taken it quite so personally, until she added, “If it’s easier on her to come earlier or late, I could skip a few finals or hang out on the street for a few weeks.”
Anyone who has come to know me since October 2009 has Sheila Barnes to thank. Alma Ann Beasley was genetically incapable of putting her concerns ahead of an amoeba. In the process of calculating what everyone in her sphere needed, she was paralyzed at the notion of making a decision. Dad was a construction worker. Something would be torn down, built, or fixed by 8:00 am, Monday through Saturday. Completing a sentence just cut into the work day. In the 51 years I’ve known him…
This apple would have been still sitting directly under the tree, lonely and rotten, had I not learned to expedite my communications.
Sheila to Bill: "Where do I show up? When?"
It could be a manifestation of opposite attraction or aspiration. While brevity is as elusive as organization for me, Sheila’s claim to fame is bullet-point communication and efficiency.
Any given day you’ll find her wearing khakis at a Wisconsin Equine management meeting by 7:00am, and in scrubs assisting a colic surgery in the afternoon. Saturday and Sunday mornings have found her on the wooden end of a fork stripping, pitching and spreading 30 box stalls when barn staff no-shows.
It is humbling to imagine how man could not have progressed were it not for the horse. They are noble, elegant and athletic. Whether under saddle working herds of cattle, fighting wars and transporting mail, or in harness breaking ground and pioneering the West; horses are creatures upon whom man has been wholly dependent for centuries.
Horses have been photographed, filmed, painted and featured in cowboy poetry. Some advertise their love with tattoos, belt buckles and blankets. Sheila with a horse is simply at one. Whether riding, working, trimming, brushing, feeding, cleaning stalls, or baling hay, she is at peace in the midst of her herd.
If I were required to describe Sheila in one word, it would be: accountable, an all-encompassing trait of which I hope Paige and Calvin can glean some fraction.
If an I-Phone 5 ever implodes or melts down, it will be hers.
According to Google Maps, it is 17 hours and 35 minutes from Cambridge, Wisconsin, to a spot in Vermont within clear earshot of a boulder-strewn mountain stream. The goal was to arrive with time for 24 hours of hardcore R&R before departing for The Green House at the University of Vermont. There we’d join the sweating parade of parental sherpas negotiating bookshelves and Papasan chairs around stairwells, as our environmental scientists and engineers retreated to the four corners for summer break.
Women will conspire, Exhibit A: Paige asked Sheila to come along to spare her 18 hours in the cab with dad. Presented with an opportunity to properly absorb nearly 40 hours of my wit, wisdom and barnyard philosophy, Sheila brought seven books on tape.
My Amazon critic Sarah accused me of being “stuck in the good old days”. Looking to grow from valid criticism, I reconned our 1037-mile route on Google Maps and synced it to my phone. It would give me turn-by-turn directions from my driveway to our little New England Bohemia.
There is enough Old-School in me that I would be more comfortable with a Rand McNally in the seat pocket; you just never know when the satellites are simultaneously going to fall from the sky, or your battery go dead. It was T minus 8 hours before departure and I had five minutes for a ¼ lb cheeseburger from Kwik Trip and a mad dash through Walgreens. I’ve made it a game to come up with the some obscure item to seek when I walk into Walgreens. The helpful young man at the first checkout knew the precise coordinates of the Midnight Jasmine nail polish; alas, he could not find an atlas.
I programmed the route from the Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic to the MK Cellular store, to confirm that turn-by-turn directions were "all systems go". Though she never hesitates to yell at me when I go “off the grid”, the lady in the phone who announces “turn left in a quarter mile” had suddenly fallen silent.
Panicked, I burst into MK Cellular where Mark, Luke and Cory have gracefully resolved every tech issue with no more than six key strokes and respect. I cued up the navigation app to demonstrate my problem, at which time the robotic wench announced: “You have reached your destination.” They can’t fix what ain’t broken.
Afternoon appointments went down smoothly. By the time chores were done at home, dogs were loaded and gear stowed, we were “southbound and down” with a Subway steak and cheese by 8:00pm. Our first goal was to get through Chicago and around the bottom of Lake Michigan. We’d drive until we were delirious. The further we made it Tuesday night, the easier Wednesday would be.
No good story is without a sub-plot (or several). Gray and his Airedale were my second client, 23 years ago. In the quarter decade since, we have water skied from ice-out to December. As I write this story on a chair in my garage, I can reach out and touch a 100ft 16-gauge extension cord, a power strip, four laser lights and his right-angle drill. I use his boat as if it were my own, in exchange for a half an hour in June and again in September. I think I may have loaned him my chain saw once, and filled a hole with my tractor.
Gray's mother is the embodiment of grace, strength and dignity. Mother’s Day was but a few weeks away and Gray wanted to create a water feature from a millstone. In the month since he’d asked, I had failed to procure one though I had asked every old-time tractor collector, and scoured 10 miles of fenceline. In New England, 1722 is considered modern era construction. I would scour the roadsides, ditches and antique shops; Gray would scout the interweb. If there was a millstone in Massachusetts, New York, or Vermont, it was coming home.
The 2014 Ram 2500 Diesel is a high tech workhorse. It can pull a three-slot horse trailer without breaking a sweat. The dashboard looks like the cockpit of a Boeing 747. It has an 8-inch data screen, bluetooth, and Sirius Satellite Radio. At an additional cost that we may have considered, it can also have on-board navigation. The in-dash CD player has gone the way of the 8-track, cassette, and three-on-the-tree: an observation I did not make until hours before departure.
In an effort to protect any chance at our future, Sheila showed up with an old-fashioned handheld player, on sale at Walmart for $9.99.
Three and a half hours may be enough time to dissolve the stresses of work if she had been at a rodeo, on the back of a horse, or the bow of a pontoon boat with a fruity rum drink in hand. Passenger seats are famous for inducing Sheila into surgical anesthesia faster than 20cc’s of IV propofol. On this occasion, however, she had yet to achieve Zen. I assured her that I had a cable to plug the player into the data port, though I had not actually visualized it.
Note to self: next time the salesman asks to show you all the high-tech features of your new Dodge Ram… take the time.
If there is a time when Chicago traffic is a minimum, I rightly figured 11:00 on a Tuesday night would be it. We sailed through the North suburbs on the Eden and confidently onto the Dan Ryan. The Chicago Skyway/Route 90 was clearly marked and we hugged the shores of the lake and headed to Gary, Indiana. There would soon be three states of smooth sailing. Before Indiana mile marker 12, I-94 would wander off into Michigan and I-65 would go south to Indy. I was looking for I-80/I-90 to continue east.
All I had to do was follow the signs, or the directions spouted by my phone.
At that exact moment, Sheila was far less concerned with our geographic coordinates. The carefully programmed phone was part of the debris flying about the cab as, in an extremely atypical moment of frustration, she continued to look for the elusive data port. Far less violent, but significant nonetheless was the torrential rain that made a mockery of the wipers. 45mph crosswinds were less of a concern, as I found myself nestled among a convoy of 53-foot tractor trailers. Secure as it were, the signs were but a blur as I struggled to find the fork in the roads.
There are times to speak; there are times for silence. In the name of self-preservation, and looking to maintain the sanctity of our little getaway, I chose “B”.
Images of her laugh-lines, dimples, pale blue eyes and flaming locks of hair buoy my soul when times are low. She is defined by her common sense. The fiery temperament alleged to ride the same gene with red hair is largely lost on Sheila Barnes; frustration is usually detectable only by a Doppler blood pressure monitor or a skilled psychologist. On those occasions of more outward display, and if I’m in some part responsible, I have evolved the practice of SASG: I don’t change the volume, the radio station, the speed of the truck, and I offer no apology. Extend the courtesy of non-reaction, and she’ll do the same the next time you’re throwing scrap lumber around the garage. Soon as it’s safe, she’ll silently hand you the carpenter’s level you’ve been looking for, for an hour.
The shortest distance between two points is famously not a triangle. My fears were confirmed when the wipers cleared the windshield and the green sign came into focus, “Detroit 275”. I had made the first significant navigational error of our brief excursion. The silver lining is that it was during our 100-mile excursion through southern Michigan that Sheila was able to locate the elusive data port.
Truck-stop coffee, chocolate covered espresso beans and 5-Hour Energy: nothing keeps an errant traveler wired like the angst of knowing it could have been avoided. Sleep was not a thought until 22 hours after I had woken and we were back on I-80 eastbound.
Defeat could only come if we lost a single second of our 24 hours of R&R.
That ain’t happening.
By 8:00am, the flipped-down visor keeping the rising sun out of our eyes, we had 35 gallons of diesel on board, a quart of “100% Columbian” truck-stop mud, and a Little Debbie Danish as we merged onto I-80 East. I’d be no less honored to sing back up with Bruce Springsteen than to be on one of the busiest interstate highways in the US, running with the big boys and girls. It exceeded Dr. Stork’s rough math to calculate the volume of freight between any two mile markers. If it gets imported, exported, eaten or built in this country, 70% travels by truck. To be nestled among the OTR pros doing their job buoyed my brain.
As the fertile croplands of Ohio gave way to the rolling dairy paddocks of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, the sun traveled its daily arc from just above the visor to our rear-view mirror. We weren’t going to make it to the Long Trail Brewing Company before they closed at 7:00, and the Backyard Barbecue didn’t open until Memorial Day weekend. Token and Remmi were road-weary. Bill and Sheila were toxic on pretzels, peanuts and snap-peas. Hell-bent as we were to reach our destination, the 1846 Tavern and Grill was well worth the U-turn. Token and Remmi made the acquaintance of Buford the Basset and we reclined in anything that was not a bucket seat, basking in the glow of the stone fireplace and pan-seared salmon.
Sheila and I would later reflect on Thursday May 7th. We sipped coffee, speaking just over the din of the birds and gurgle of the stream that meandered beyond the mountain meadow. Token leaped through dead-fall as Remmi scrambled down the walk path. I set down my mug to carry her back up, only to find I had once again under-estimated the old girl’s heart. Breakfast would be leftovers from the 1846 over three eggs, and in no kinda hurry.
We hiked Deer Leap Lookout as Token scrambled up the rocks like she was born on the Appalachian Trail, hoping to go as high as the remnants of the record New England snowfall. Remmi guarded the truck. Just north of Woodstock and three miles down a post-card dirt road led us to Sugar Bush Farms.
Two steps into the kitchen, the lady wiped her hands on her apron and stepped away from waxing bricks of cheese. She shaved a microscopic sliver of smoked cheddar that was near nirvana (Grand Champion at 2013 World Championship Cheese Competition in Green Bay). We lounged and sipped Long Trail Ale as the sun set on what Sheila would later call “A Perfect Day”.
Paige said she’d be ready to load out by late morning. It was a two hour drive to Burlington and I expected traffic. A drive across Vermont is a feast of the senses; avoid the interstate except for emergencies. We arrived with enough time to walk the shores of Lake Champlain with Remmi and Token and listen to the howls of a homeless Rastafarian echo of the walls of a city administration building.
Loading Bill out of Lincoln Avenue Residence Hall at the University of Illinois, circa May 1984, required a ¾-ton Ford pickup truck and a 23-foot stock trailer. Dad had built bunks that hoisted our beds to the ceiling, leaving floor space for a Davenport, and a trundle bed. No dorm is complete without the requisite bean bag chair and book shelves. Once my neighbor introduced me to Stevie Ray, and Kish indoctrinated me into the school of Van Morrison, the Panasonic with built-in cassette and receiver with turn-table patched in would not do. A poor college student can’t justify or afford a respectable stereo, unless it is a pair of Klipsch Horns with a 200-watt slave and a pre-amp to control it. Then he can book small DJ jobs. It becomes a source of income, and new CDs (released while I was an undergraduate) are tax deductible.
Loading Paige out of The Green House at the University of Vermont, circa May 2015, required three trips. Her gear would have fit in the glove box of a smart car. Her goal is to be able to carry her belongings on her back.
I treasure every day I get to spend with Paige and Sheila. There are moments of frustration to be managed. You’ll recall this entire journey is underpinned by a conspiracy that we’ll refer to as “The Muting of Dad.” They will smile softly and look dismissively just past you. They claim to know what you are really thinking.
The unspoken accusation is: "Dad is thinking, 'If we have a full tank of gas and lunch on board when we pick up Paige, then we can beat traffic over the bridge back to New York by 1:30. With a quick rest stop at the Welcome to the Empire State, we can go hard until a late supper in Ohio. If Remmi is doing ok, we can be back in Wisconsin in time to mow grass Saturday morning, go for a bike ride, catch the early band at Tyranena and then the Cash Box Kings in Madison at the Crystal. With a 7-minute nap, I should be up by 5:00 on Sunday to get three hours of writing done.'"
Those thoughts never crossed my mind.
So, when Paige asks apologetically, “There are a few things I’d like to check out before we get going,” I soften all body language. “Oh sure, Paige, this isn’t a race, that would be fine.”
Translated, “Dad’s in town with the MasterCard.”
It is a rare day the famous “Farmhouse Restaurant” in Burlington does not have a 2-hour waiting list. In anticipation of 450 miles of Ohio-Indiana deep-fried tollway poison, we sat in the shade of the umbrellas on the sidewalk while the free-range, all-natural, organic calf that would eventually grow up to become the steer that is humanely laid to rest in order to become one of the most creative $20.00 hamburgers I’ve ever eaten, was weaned.
We made it through the Patagonia store for a bit under a dollar a minute. Surrounded by $200.00 high-tech, performance rain coats, a $20.00 ball cap is a bargain.
Paige disappeared into the Outdoor Gear Exchange. The uber-helpful young sales rep inexplicably asked if I needed to know where the bathroom was as I deftly rifled through the closeout rack looking in futility for an XLT, and rocking from left to right.
I thanked her and asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have a road atlas would you?”
“Dude, that is so totally Old-School!” as she pointed to a rack next to the climbing ropes.
U.S. Interstate Highway 80 runs 4000 miles from the Hudson River in New York City to the San Francisco Bay Bridge. It is always four, and at times up to eight lanes wide. I may someday be able to reconcile having lost track of it once. Twice in four days, and I’d demand my father write me out of his will, present myself for castration, or both.
Paige and Sheila sorted hammocks. I camped under a modern art sculpture on Church Street, oblivious to the patchouli and body odor, studying the atlas.
I’d take I-7 South out of Burlington to Route 22. I had seen the signs for New York on our way into town. Route 22 would turn into 17, and take us across the lake. I didn’t need to know the highway that paralleled the lake to the south. I’d just follow the signs to Ticonderoga, where I’d take 74 West to Interstate 87. That would deflect us a bit south, but I calculated our speed of travel would compensate any extra distance. In no time there’d be a sign for Akron, I-80, and a straight shot back to Gary.
In time, the girls emerged from OGE. There was no way to be in the shadow of both Ben and Jerry without going for ice cream, unless the line ran out the door, around the corner, and disappeared into Quebec. We opted instead for an elixir called Kombucha. Kombucha is evidently made from Holy Water blessed in small batches by Pope Francis and aged in golden urns. It comes in a variety of flavors and is available at City Market, a popular UVM store that strictly prohibits BGh, antibiotics and antiperspirant. They require armpit hair and pay their employees a stipend in proportion to the percentage of their body covered in tattoos.
In demonstrating to the girls just how relaxed I can be, I attempted to be unaware of the time. We made it back to the truck, exercised Remmi and Token, and I glanced at the digital clock on the dash. Half-past 4, only thirty minutes later than my most generous estimation. With some efficient navigation and keeping rubber to the road, I could get both yards mowed Saturday afternoon.
I was basking in my brilliance as the Green Mountains gave way to a fertile plain populated by CSAs and dairy farms. We topped our tank at the Addison General Store, which had a pump with rolling numbers, $7.00 Vermont ball caps, and 50lbs of ribs in a smoker out back. We were headed south toward the home of the lead pencil when Sheila asked, “Do you want me to cue up the navigation on my phone?”
At the risk of undermining my confidence, “Sure," I said, "I’ve got a pretty good bead on this situation, but it never hurts to have a backup”.
I have perfect recall of the intersection of I-87 and NY 74: I had swung wide and depressed the signal lever that Sheila so boldly accuses me of neglecting, when her phone spoke, “Continue forward on route 28.”
I hesitated, but assumed that Google Maps was straightening out the southern reflection of 87. In doing so, we would take a two-lane trip through the wooded lakes of the Adirondack Mountains. Bonus.
We found a vacant ball park next to Long Lake. Bladders were bursting and Remmi and Token were ready for a romp. We lapped the outfield twice and had a team meeting. Given our time-frame there wasn’t so much to see between Upstate New York and Cambridge, Wisconsin. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would surely be cool, but locked up tight at 1:00AM.
Paige hadn’t driven a car in six months, but she’s a gamer. She volunteered to take a shift behind the wheel. Sheila, if you recall, is famous for vehicle-induced comas. I envisioned myself taking the 2:00AM to home shift.
In the Dodge Ram commercials, the little girl is giggling from the back seat as she watches the foal race the Quad Cab down the gravel drive. As my under-loaded, ¾-ton Ram chattered over road construction and lane changes, the 50 year old guy in the jump seat is less amused, my bald noggin bouncing off the windows like a bobblehead in a paint shaker.
I sat bolt upright as Sheila navigated, “OK Paige, take 190 NORTH."
Leaping from broken sleep to tachycardia, in my mind I traced the route from Burlington to Cambridge; we should never be northbound. In less than a quarter of a mile we were on the brakes, having joined a 1:00AM traffic jam that looked like Black Friday at Wal-Mart.
Behind the glare of the green and red lights, I could make out “Bienvenue au Canada.”
The I-Phone asks nicely if you’d like to avoid toll roads. Clearly, foreign countries are no big deal. The shortest route between Burlington, Vermont, and Cambridge, Wisconsin, is straight through southern Ontario.
Paige spent three weeks in Peru at the foot of Machu Picchu when she was 14 years old. She ventured to Finland for a month. I expected that errantly arriving at the border of our friendly neighbor to the north and being fluent in “Hockey” would cause her less stress than “where’s the ladies room?”. Feeling responsible, situationally castrate, and a bit surprised, I rolled down my window.
The only passport among us was buried in a garbage bag under the tarp in the back. We were the fourth load of under-documented travelers misguided by technology; but we were surely the first who displayed their loyalty to Fred J. Eaglesmith on the license plate. (Remember Fred?)
I was certain the border guard would notice the "5 TON" homage immediately. Recognizing our declared allegiance to their poet laureate, they would offer a free pass, if not an escort across the Province.
I waited for an opening.
The guard presented us with a 3x6 piece of scrap paper and pointed us to the glass building. Well-armed and hyper-friendly Canuck number 2 explained that while we were more than welcome to travel through Ontario, he could not assure our fate upon re-entry.
Feigning casual, I rocked back and laughed, pointing to my truck.
“What’s so funny?”
“Ahh,” I said, "how ironic that I find myself stranded at the border, only 90 kilometers (switching to metric should seal the deal) from the birthplace of Fred J. Eaglesmith."
I waited for the offer.
“Who?” he seemed puzzled.
“Fred Eaglesmith,” I repeated. “White Rose, Indian Motorcycles, Cumberland County… you know, that Fred,” assuming that repeated exposure to Jake brakes made it hard for him to hear deep voices.
I looked around to see if there was a supervisor available. Clearly, I was being vetted by the only Canadian who did not know the significance of Fred. If there was another official, he’d whisk us right across. The Buffalo New York border crossing is not exactly crawling with people in the wee hours. He pointed to the gate that would open as we approached it and explained the route back south.
Back home, I reflected. Had I taken two more steps and ten minutes at Kwik Trip in Lake Mills, an atlas would have fallen on my head. If I had pulled over to follow the one I bought in Burlington at the intersection New York 87, we wouldn’t have been able to save all this time to swing through Michigan and bounce off Canada.
Leave it to Sheila to pick up on one small detail. "If you had a license plate on the FRONT of your truck, maybe the first border guard would have been a Fredhead."
Maybe it was best I encountered the only two Canadians who didn’t know Fred. Fred’s border crossings are not uniformly flawless. If there is a vehicle that raises more suspicion than a ¾-ton truck, it would be a 25-year-old bus smelling like french fries, driven by a gravel gut student of Buddha in a stove-pipe hat, and a pinstriped tuxedo with tails. Mysteriously, Fred’s Traveling Steam Show is prone to inspection. On at least one crossing, Fred’s Bluebird had been detained. His guitar player, Matty Simpson, was found with a half-dozen expired Roman Candles.
Next time I align myself to a Canadian in expectation of amnesty, I’ll try Ann Margaret, Sarah McLachlan… or maybe Pam Anderson.