A few days work

I arrived in Concord early in the afternoon. The weather was pleasant, no snow, no rain. How did we find things before google and craigslist, I really can’t remember. That day I was looking for a place to stay for a few days and a place to work to make a few bucks.

I had some money in my pocket, but, it was almost gone. Somehow I found a listing for a boarding house on what passes in Concord for the bad side of town. I walked up the six steps of the brownstone row house and knocked. The woman who answered was a kind of malnourished junkie looking girl a few years older than me. “I’m looking for a room for a few days,” I asked.

Still holding the door half closed she said, “You’d have to have some money.”

This seemed reasonable to me. “I’ve got money,” I told her.

She turned her back to me and shouted up the stairs, “John, there’s a guy here looking for a place to stay, and he’s got MONEY.”

John quickly came down the stairs, took my twenty one bucks for three nights, and led me up to a strange unfurnished space. You really couldn’t call it a room. It was like an oversized closet behind a door, under the third floor stairs. It had a window, some stained industrial carpet, and nothing else. It wasn’t much, but it worked for me. I leaned my red Kelty against the wall, rolled out my foam mat and sleeping bag, put a book and flashlight next to my “bed”, and I was moved in.

I hit the streets quick looking for work. Manpower was always a sure thing, so, I stopped by their office to see what they had available. If I could show up the next day at a moving company in the neighborhood, they would give me a few days work, I was told.

Like most state capitals, Concord, New Hampshire had an abandoned rust belt feel. It was like time had stopped between the wars, and people were just waiting things out. There wasn’t anything much to do, and that twenty one was almost the last of my money, so I went back to my little hidey hole, lay down on my bag using my spare pair of jeans as a pillow and read for a while.

In the morning, as promised the work was available. I spent the next two days hauling boxes and furniture out of a storage warehouse, on to trucks. I wasn’t even skilled enough to know where to put stuff, there was always a guy around telling me what to take, and where to go. It was mindless, but it I got forty bucks a day, and that worked for me.

After a couple of days, the work ran out, so, I checked at Manpower and they had another gig for me. There was a factory nearby that made frozen chicken pot pies. They needed someone to work the line, no experience necessary. I had all the qualifications.

I showed up at an almost identical 19th century brick warehouse and checked in to work.

“The line” was actually a circular machine about 8 feet across as tall as the ceiling. A circular table top turned 90 degrees every five or ten seconds. Their were four stations. The first guy put four laid out four aluminum foil tray and put a frozen sheet of dough across the top. The second station had a press that came down and shaped the dough into trays. Before the table turned again, a steam of chicken stew came out of the vat above and filled the four pie shells. On the next turn a guy laid on a top sheet of dough before a die cut came down and sealed and cut the pie dough. At the final station a guy pulled the four finished pot pies off the line and put them into a waiting box. When the box filled he would send them down a shoot into a freezer room.

This was a little to mindless even for me. I only lasted the day, but, I was able to pick up another check for forty bucks, and now, with over a hundred in my pocket, I was ready to move on. It could have been worse, but, I’ll tell you, I’ve never enjoyed a chicken pot pie the same since.

There was still a few hours of daylight at the end of my shift, and I my little hidey hole wasn’t really any more appealing than a free spot on the ground next to a highway somewhere, so I went back to the rooming house, spent about 30 seconds packing up my stuff and walked out to Route 93. Did I head north or south, I really can’t remember.

It’s funny with some memories. They hang out there floating in free space, no entry point, no exit point, like a two mile stretch of road in the fog.

Leaving the Snow

When March arrives, most of the country begins to sprout and blossom. This is not so true in the North Country. By mid-March, the hills are still covered in several feet of snow, and there might still be a few blizzards before spring. During my years in New Hampshire, I found that at that point, I was ready for a break. The needed break came from 3-day music festival in North Carolina, The Union Grove Fiddler’s Contest.
 
When the time came, I packed my trusty red Kelty with my sleeping bag, a change of clothes or so, some eating utensils, and a book or two and walked up to the Southbound entrance ramp of Route 93. The shoulders aren’t plowed, so, you had to stand pretty much in the road way to thumb a ride. That didn’t matter so much however, cause people were driving slow on the crusty snow and ice.
It didn’t take too long to get my first ride south. As long as someone was going through the White Mountains, and on at least as far as Plymouth, I was set. It wasn’t a good idea to take a ride into the mountains and get dropped off in Franconia Notch. I had learned the year before during a winter camping trip to the Presidential Range that trying to sleep out in that bitter cold was uncomfortable and pretty stupid.
 
It was a six hour drive to New York City, and I hoped to get there, where I could spend the night at my sister’s house or with friends. 93 led to 91, 91 to 95, and finally to the east side of the George Washington Bridge where I could take the A-train down near Columbia University, where Meg was living at the time.
 
The next morning, I walked across the George Washington Bridge and found a small ramp onto 95 South in Fort Lee, New Jersey. There wasn’t much hope of getting a long ride from this commuter spot, but, I had to get out of the Metropolitan Area to find a safe place to hitch. As luck would have it, by the time I got into Virginia the next day, a driver was going straight into Waynesboro.
 
Now the Shenandoah National Park wasn’t my original destination, but I had a few days before the Fiddler’s Contest began, and I’ve always been a sucker for those lean-to campsites that are build up and down the Appalachian Trail.
I grabbed some provisions at a local market and started hiking North. There was a lean-to several miles out of town, so, I didn’t have to hope for a ride, I could just walk north into Shenandoah National Park.
 
I had left winter long behind. The fields were lush green, the trees were budding, the streams were flowing. It was like traveling two months in three days, going from New Hampshire to Virginia. I still had a few hours of daylight, so I climbed into the Blue Ridge and enjoyed some of the most beautiful hiking on offer.
 
I got to my destination just as it started to get dark. I shouldn’t have been too surprised to discover someone was already staying at the lean-to. These shelters are prize destinations for through hikers on the AT.
 
What did surprise me was that the guy I met, like me, had arrived at the shelter with the intention of enjoying some solitude and scenery for a few days. I was an exile from the snow, a lost boy from New Jersey, and a sometime tree stump philosopher. He was a Mennonite from Pennsylvania
 
We were about the same age, but he was experiencing a tradition shared by all young men of his faith. It was news to me, but around age 18, a Mennonite boy is given the opportunity to leave the church and community, and strike out into the wide world. Through the process, he must decide whether he wants to make a life on his own in the outside world, or to return to his community and commit to the simple life that world offers.
 
We ended up spending a few nights together in that shelter overlooking the Shenandoah Valley. Most of the time, we left each other alone, but in the evenings we would sit and talk about our different but analogous journeys.

Winter

Summer ends early in the North Country of New Hampshire. The months of blowing snow and bitter cold during my first winter didn’t deter me, but, when the temperature in the Potato Cellar began to drop for the winter on August 15th, I really thought that was unfair.

I’d spent my first summer at Ski Hearth Farm living in an A-frame cabin way out on the road to Lisbon. From Franconia you drove a few miles up Sugar Hill and turned left towards Pear Lake. I shared the place with a couple of friends. We didn’t have any neighbors within a ½ mile, but if you walked around the lake a bit you came to a dairy farm that sold raw milk, fresh from the herd, as long as you brought your own gallon jar.

The place suited me well, and it was perfect for three of us, but now that winter was coming Tim was heading back to Jersey, and I figured it was time to live on my own. At that point I had a Chevy Corvair, which despite being “Unsafe at any speed…” was reliable transportation. I wanted a place tucked in the woods and small enough that I could afford on my own.

What I found was a one room log cabin. It wasn’t a kit, it wasn’t that nice. It was a building about 16 x 8 feet whose walls were laid from 8 inch pine logs that had been rough milled with a chainsaw. There was running water in the kitchen sink, but it wasn’t potable. There was an outhouse out back about 20 feet. There was even a fridge, as it turned out, this proved most useful for keeping my milk from freezing solid during winter nights.

When I moved in there was already a couple of feet of snow on the ground, so, I would walk from the dirt turnout where I parked along Highway 18 up a narrow path a couple of hundred yards into the woods. One benefit of North Country winters, the deep snow completely masks even the most unkempt property, and hides abandoned cars and old appliances that may be lying around.

This wasn’t the most beautiful place in the town, but it was home.

Every day or so, I would strap on my LL Bean wicker backpack, fill it with five or six empty milk jugs, and walk down the road about half a mile to a spring where I would fill the jugs for drinking water.

In my mind, this tiny cabin was separated into 3 living areas. There was the 8 x 8 kitchen, and 8 x 8 “living room” and a loft bedroom the same size as the living room below. The ceiling of the living area was about 2 inches lower than my head, if I stood up straight, but it didn’t really matter, as it was too cold all winter to spend any time in that half of the cabin. My days were spent at work, my evenings were spent, either reading in bed, or carousing at a local bar, and of course, with night starting around 4 in the afternoon, a good deal of my time was spent sleeping in my sleeping bag under several blankets.

Most mornings I would walk down the hill to my car. I would start it up then brush off, or shovel out, the snow that had accumulated since the day before. Then I would creep down the hill with my bald tires to Ski Hearth Farm. If I was lucky, we’d spend the morning grading potatoes. Throughout the year the cellar temperature ranged from a high of 42 to a low of 38, so it was often 50 degrees colder than outside.

There were just two of us working the farm in the off season. Jim and me. So grading potatoes was a four man job with the two of us dancing between two jobs each. First he would bring over a crate holding a ton of potatoes on the forklift. I would put a couple of sacks that held fifty pound at one end of the grader, then we would take turns filling the potato hopper at one end. Jim would scan the potatoes as they rolled by on the conveyor, leaving the best to drop into the “Number One” bags then pulling the potatoes with cut marks or misshapen spuds to the “Number Two” bags. Everything else was tossed into a wooden box “culls” and fed to the cattle.

When one fifty pound sack was full it was my job to tie up the top with a heavy metal twisty using a small tool whose free-spinning handle made the job possible. These sacks would be stacked on a palette, and a new sack put in its place at the end of the grader.

We would spend an hour or two each morning sorting spuds. The noise of the grader precluded conversation, but, we could put on music, usually Dylan’s Desire or Marley’s Exodus, for entertainment.

Once this task was done, it was time to bundle up and face the frigid are outside.

Homage to a Weeding Hoe

The ideal tool is designed for a common task, and facilitates the completion of that task with ease and comfort. This tool fits comfortably in your hand and balances with the rhythm of your action while you work. An ideal tool is designed to last for years of effort, and possibly get better with age. When you first hold this tool, it feels natural in your grip, however, with repeated use you develop proficiency with its use and master its strengths.

There may be no more perfect tool than a weeding hoe. Its five foot ash handle stands shoulder high, a length that offers the perfect angle when standing in a field and putting it to work. The handle is made of wood that is light but durable. It has a suppleness that let’s the tool flex to your pressure, but, it has the strength to offer necessary resistance. The wood of the shaft is smooth and rounded, at one end it widens in diameter slightly, so you grip knows that the end is near.

The surface of a new hoe’s handle comes smooth, sometimes varnished, or just oiled. It is ready to use, but, over the years, if it is kept out of the rain, the surface is infused with the oils of many hands, or leather gloves. It becomes as supple as silk to the touch.

A weeding hoe is not meant for breaking up clods of dirt or deeply aerating the soil, but rather for topping the greens that spring up from weed roots at surface level and stunting their growth, giving the row crop a chance to get ahead, and find their place in the sun. So, the weeding hoe has a thin blade, not the wide flattened trowel of the common gardening hoe. This blade is five or six inches across, and about the width of a 10” chef’s knife.

The blade is honed to an edge each day before being put to work. Put the neck of the tool into a vise, with the end of the handle on the floor, and the blade sits at the perfect angle to be sharpened with a fine metal file. As the blade metal is soft, just a few strokes at the appropriate angle brings it back to life. The business end is bright with new metal. The rest of the blade is blackened, with a patina of soil from past labors.

When you take a sharpened hoe into the field, its use could not be more obvious. When held in two hands at 45 degrees, the blade is almost parallel to the smooth surface of the garden soil. It is sharp enough to slice through any plant like a guillotine, beheading crabgrass, buckhorn, bindweed, Lamb’s quarter, and dandelion alike. Wielded carefully, the blade is short enough to cut close to the crop you aim to save, while not disturbing its progress.

Even the most careful gardener will occasionally decapitate a young cabbage or lettuce, however, this is where the practice brings mastery to the simple task. While it takes a moment to understand the use of this wonderful tool, years of practice will improve your speed and accuracy. There lies the satisfaction of simple labor.

While some choose meditation, and some prayer, I find there is no better place for quiet contemplation than walking backwards along a long garden row, hoe in hand, freeing young crop plants from their competition. There is no greater sense of accomplishment than looking back at a field, made of of 20 or 30 long rows, and seeing it transformed into a rich brown loamy surface, with only the regular interruption of evenly spaced crops.

Time on a Farm

Farmwork follows natural cycles, each day, each season, each year. There is still frost on the ground when the asparagus begins to shoot through the topsoil, needing to be cut and bundled before sunrise. By the time the asparagus had gone by, and was growing into a wispy fern field the peas were ready and a couple of bushels had to be picked each morning when the chill air filled them with sugar, and the hot sun had not turned the sugar to starch.

As the sun came up we’d be planting mixed vegetables in the spring, onions, beets, broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, beans, and five kinds of lettuce. The acres and acres of corn and potatoes were planted by machine, and there was nothing to do with them until they were ready for harvest, later in the summer.

Each afternoon we’d sharpen our hoes, hop on the back of the flatbed and ride out to one of the gardens to slice the tops off newly forming weeds. Six of us would start on six rows working side by side in one direction, then take the next six rows heading back until the garden was clean and freshly tilled, rich brown soil with young shoots of row-crops pushing up to the sky.

By mid-june harvest would begin. Even here, north of the White Mountains, and a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, radishes, lettuce, greens, and spring onions would be ready for market before the first day of summer. Harvest meant the opening of the farm stand. Each afternoon one of us would spend the rest of the day weighing produce, and helping folks bring their goods back to their cars, that someone was almost never me, but usually one of the beautiful young blonde girls Sel prefered for his workers.

By mid-July, corn was ready for harvest. We’d head into the rows, towering high above our heads in teams of two. One to pick, pinch the top of the ear to feel if the kernels were full, if so, rip down sharply.

Sel could pick corn with two hands, harvesting from the row on the right and left at the same time. The second person carried a sack into which fifty ears were tossed. That was my job, to follow close to the picker, and count the ears off aloud as they hit the sack. Then I’d hustle the bag back to the end of the row where we could pick them up in the flatbed.

If you were picking the corn, you could keep going while your counter ran back. For the first few ears, you would hold the bag in one hand while picking with the other.

Sel’s bulldog always followed along, waiting for his treat; a freshly shucked cob fresh from the stalk, sweet as candy in the morning dew.

Four times each summer a field of hay or clover would ripen. For a few days, Sel would go out to the field and check the kernels. Then he’d check the weather report. If you cut the hay to early, a good deal of the nutrition was lost. If the hay got rained on while drying, you might lose the whole field.

When the time came, Sel would hop on the tractor with a mower attached and head out to the field. The next day it mown grasses would dry in the sun. Mid day he would hook up the tedder to toss the hay in the air for quicker drying. Later he’d rake the dried grasses into even lines.  Just before the sun went down he’d hook up his baler and drive in circles around the forty acres sucking up the rows of dried hay and leaving behind fifty pound bales.

If the hay had too much moisture, you didn’t just ruin the crop, wet bales could ferment, cause spontaneous combustion, and burn down your barn.

Haying was a hoot. You’d run around the field, picking up bales on the end of your pitch fork, hold them above your head and race them to the flat bed. Two people on the truck would stack the hay until it was too high to reach a bale on the tip of your pitch fork, then drive to the barn. We’d unload the truck onto a conveyor and someone in the loft would stack it neatly starting at the back wall. You always took the last load to the barn in the dark, but hopefully before any dew settled.

In August, you can feel the end of summer north of the Franconia Notch, and that meant potatoes. Ski Hearth Farm grew 40 acres of potatoes, and this called for a month of mind numbing, back breaking work, picking thousands and thousands of pounds of russetts and red potatoes and loading them into the potato cellar.

By mid September it was turning cold in earnest. There was the last of the carrots, cabbage, and cauliflower to harvest before the first freeze. The corn fields had to be cut and stored for silage, and it was time to start feeding the cows from the hayloft and the silo, as there wasn’t much fresh for them to forage.

Franconia has a long dark winter. Only a couple of us worked on the farm all winter, bucking wood, feeding the cattle, grading potatoes and bringing them to market. Some days it was so cold, we spent most of the time just trying to get one of the trucks or a tractor to turn over.

But eventually, the bitter cold would subside, the six feet of snow would melt to three, then to one, then to none.

One day the ground wasn’t frozen solid, and lo and behold the asparagus patch would begin to push up tiny rods, and the cycle of the year would begin again.