It was mid-June when the winter finally caught up with me. I was in Butte, Montana – which is not free from snow, even in mid-winter. Stepping off the Greyhound bus that had carried me from Billings, where I at the best Mexican food I’ve ever tasted, the weather was cool, but there was a crispness to the air and a certain look to the clouds that suggested snow was coming. Billings, where I had just spent two nights, is a town that seemed to be limping towards some new definition of itself that bordered between delusion and denial; Butte, on the other hand, had a more stubborn feel to it, the sort of stubbornness you only understand if that particular adjective has ever been used in a description of your personality; it’s an old mining town in an age where mining is increasingly problematic – which means that the owners work to protect their interests and trying to keep workers from protecting theirs.
The Greyhound Bus Station – which also served as Butte’s local metro station – was midway up the hill, about two miles from the I-90 overpass; a squat, cold building even when it people were sitting in it, the station looked like it was built as an afterthought from leftover materials used to build the ostentatious looking convention center across the access road. Behind the bus station, in a large parking lot, a small fair. The rides were running and people were milling about, but it was near 5 in the afternoon; the clouds made it look later than it actually was, particularly for mid-summer. The crowd was thin. If the money had been in my pocket, I could’ve gotten on any ride or tried any attraction without having to wait in line.
Almost deserted fairs are depressing in a unique and particular way. Traveling fairs are even more depressing. Near deserted fair grounds always ring of misanthropy; a social space that is no longer social. When I was young, I used to go to the county fair with a friend of mine who grew up on a working farm. Brad helped his dad raise sheep, and every year, he had one in the county’s 4H contest. My memories of the fair are more like sense memories; there weren’t always rides when there were, I wasn’t allowed on them because they weren’t rooted to the ground. The smells of hot funnel cakes covered in powdered sugar, deep fried corn dogs, nachos and cheese, sugary pop syrup, and manure waft in the air whenever I see a fair. And while the fair in Butte was more a summer carnival, than a county fair, that made the memory so much more sad, and the picture in front of me that much more stark. Images of the Bird Girl at the end of the pre-code 1932 terror film Freaks spring to mind. But I also can’t help but associated the end of any fair with the end of summer when all the corn fields are harvested and left naked and overspent for the winter months.
As I shifted my pack up on my back, I wondered if the fair would pick up and leave before the snow hit.
Corn had been on my mind as I traveled west. Living in Mount Carroll, Illinois (which, to the casual observer, can look more like an interruption of one endless cornfield than an actual town that was intentionally founded),as I had been since December 2009 until mid-January 2012 when I hit the road caused me to reacquaint myself with the nature of growing seasons and the signs and symbols embedded therein. Spring was heralded by the beginning of planting, the giant machines of agribusiness first turning the soil over and chemically reinvigorating so that it might again, against all probability, bear more crops. Then the actual planting and the hope for rain. There were plenty of small working farms around where I lived, but the agricultural life of Carroll County was, by and large, controlled by a few families who had the resources swallow up the land. To ensure that the grain trucks would continue to roll overweight and to keep business taxes as low as they could get away with without calling it out and out robbery, agribusiness had also, by and large, maintained control of the Carroll County Board. This body of elected officials ran county government as they saw fit, though always with an eye on the individual interests of those on the board. My job, living there, was to write for a newspaper and cover, among other things, the County Board.
The only trouble I ran into, of course, is that they seemed to be unaccustomed to being called out for behaving like politicians – which is to say, self-interested, petty, and partisan. In fact, when a Democrat … who was just as petty and just as partisan … finally managed to be elected to the County Board – that happened in the late 1980’s – it created a terrible scandal and more than one coffee counter conversation about how the damned Commies were going to take over the county. To date, by the way, the Red Army has shown no interest in the county. This response is not remarkably different from the state government in Springfield or from the Feds.
Small farmers need a good growing season to make it; agribusiness needs a good growing season to make it over the long haul, but they can make a profit whether or not the season brings rain. Agribusiness takes advantages of flaw in the various farm subsidies programs, enabling them to draw 80 to 90% of the cash while being among the top 10% of wealthy land owners. They can also store back grain against loss; in other words, bad growing seasons means the cost of grain goes up, and when it gets high enough, they sell. In practice, it’s not much different from shorting stocks – except that shorting stocks is technically illegal.
Due to a last minute change of course, I was traveling north and west instead of south and west. This gave me the opportunity to watch the corn growing season from beginning to end. My original westward route, as I had sort of conceived it, would take me from Ashland, Kentucky, westbound through the Bluegrass /Kick Ass state across the Mississippi River somewhere around Hannibal Missouri, and then head south. Then I would make my way west on a southerly route, to California and up the coast, and returning east bound through the Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota. I had stopping points along the way, where I would visit friends I hadn’t seen in entirely too many years.
My route, as I had originally conceived it, was timed not only with the seasons, but with an eye on being back in Mount Carroll towards the end of August. I had to be back at that time for divorce proceedings from my second wife, Melissa.
But, as often happens when one is traveling and not merely being a tourist, plans change and it’s important to learn to roll with them.
Which is why I was able to watch as long, dry summer strangled the corn crop. In places, mostly grown stalks weren’t any taller than my knee.