I grew up eight miles outside a town so small it’s often left out on maps. Most people from Condon, when asked where we’re from, will beat around the bush with explanations like, “Oh, 30 miles south of the gorge,” or “80 miles east of The Dalles.”
Anybody somewhat familiar with this side of Oregon will say, “Yeah, but where?”
Condon, we’ll finally say, and 90 percent of the time they’ve never heard of it.
“It’s just a small town in the middle of nowhere,” we’ll say. And it’s true. It’s a two-hour drive to get anywhere significant, in any direction. There’s nothing for miles but fields filled with wheat, oats, barley and CRP, but it’s those very fields that bring me back each summer when their rows warm under the summer sun and turn from green to gold.
I started as the “pick up driver” before my feet could even reach the pedals. When I grew, I learned how to drive tractor and pull the bank-out wagon, which is the go-between hauler from combine to truck. When I was 10 years old, my mother taught me how to drive her combine, and then I took her job.
So here I sit, 17 years later, for two weeks going round and round for 12 hours a day, six days a week. I haven’t missed a harvest yet.
A few days in and I begin to wonder why I continue to come back, year after year. My back hurts. My wrist is threatening carpel tunnel and my legs are restless. The radio stations have playlists on repeat. My mind is already racing with things I’d rather do, places I’d rather be.
Fortunately we cut a rather large amount of crop relatively quickly – in about 13 days – and this is typically how it goes:
Day 1 – I’m already cursing the radio. I have a CD player, but no CDs. I’m bored, and it’s only been six hours, but I remind myself it’s only two weeks, and my dad pays well.
Day 2 – I text everybody I know when I’m on the one side of the field that actually has cell service. I beg any and all of my friends to come ride with me. “I have a buddy seat!” “Bring music!” “Bring beer!”
Drinking and driving is not illegal on your own property.
Day 3 – The other combine breaks, and it feels like somebody paused all the clocks. Time creeps by, and the end that we once were moving toward at lightening speed with two machines running at 5 mph, is now nowhere in sight. I remind myself: I could be standing in the hot sun, grabbing handfuls of straw and cutting it with a machete, like I’ve seen so many times around Southeast Asia…
It makes me feel a little better.
Day 4 – I sing louder to the songs I now know by heart, to try to stay awake. My dog looks up and I swear he cringes. (If you read, “My Combine Companion,” I mentioned Elvis doesn’t judge me for singing. I’m retracting that statement now.)
Day 5 – A friend comes to visit, and the afternoon passes by in a flash. I tell her to come back again sometime, and in politeness she nods and says maybe. I know she won’t. A few hours in, and the spinning reel threatens to put anybody to sleep, myself and my dog included.
Day 6 – I spent the previous night downloading old episodes of This American Life podcast. The stories range from carnival managers to transvestites to politics and money, and every one sucks me in like my header inhales the wheat. I laugh out loud, I get mad, and I cry. The hours pass.
Day 7 – I eat a rock…with my header. And it causes a dramatic shutdown. I dislodge it, but it has already done internal damage. I have to drive six hours to Portland and back, just to pick up the necessary replacement part. A thought crosses my mind: If I were harvesting like they do in Thailand or Vietnam, with a machete, I wouldn’t have eaten a rock…
Day 8 – I run out of toilet paper. Before Asia, this might have perturbed me just a little, but now I remind myself I spent my first four days in India without it (The majority if Asians still don’t use it) and I’m still alive. I shrug it off and step out into the blistering heat without it.
Day 9 – A warning sound defaults in my combine due to a stripped wire, but it will be evening before my mom returns back from Pendleton (4 hours, round trip) with the semi truck that broke down yesterday, and my new part. This means for the next five hours, I have to listen to a loud incessant beep – a sound that screams immediate emergency – as I try not to go crazy. Fortunately, I still have fresh episodes of This American Life on my phone, and I get lost in stories about Americans living in China.
Day 10 – It’s hard to wake up so I packed an extra cup of coffee. It’s already 90 outside and I have to stop every 30 min, shut down my machine and step outside to pop a squat near the tire. It’s annoying, but it breaks up the monotony. Thank goodness I remembered to replenish the toilet paper.
Day 11 – It’s windy. It blows up so much dust with each turn that I have to use my windshield wiper to clear it. I dread stepping outside. I wonder how bad it was during my grandfather’s day, in a combine without a cab or an air conditioner. My beading sweat surely would have attracted layers upon layers of dirt and chaf. I probably wouldn’t have returned the next summer.
Day 12 – The end is near. I spend the morning praying nothing breaks, for if I have to crawl in this dusty brown seat tomorrow, I might cry. And it won’t be while I’m listening to interviews about the genocide in Guatemala on This American Life.
We finally finish, and then spend the rest of the afternoon with cold beer and bottles of wine on the deck, reminiscing about all the things that went wrong.
Not every year is this mundane of course. We’ve had fires that burnt for hours and threatened to burn into the city (if you can call it that with 700 people) before the team of local farmers and firefighters put it out.
And before I took over, my father hired a combine driver who managed to roll his machine down a steep hill. He jumped to safety.
Did I mention my combine tops out at 20 mph?
But for the most part, the summer harvests blur together like rain on a windshield, and disappear into the count. I actually look forward to coming back, even though I’m well aware of how quickly the excitement wears off. I feel lucky to have this experience, this opportunity, and I fear the day it will all be gone.
There’s something nostalgic about it, and as much as I’m dreading the next four days, I know the memory of my current misery will fade faster than fabric under the August sun, and when this time next year comes around again, all I’ll remember is how nice it was to be home, with my family, during summer. And how good it feels to finish .
This is my American life.
Who wants to come for a ride?
This American Life: I Drive a John Deere