Excerpts from emails I wrote during the summer
I cut wheat straw in eastern Washington

Explanatory Note: A swather is a machine that cuts wheat straw and piles it into windrows. The crew I worked for cut and baled the stubble after the combines had harvested the wheat. The straw bales were mostly shipped to Canada for growing mushrooms.

"There's absolutely no schedule"

If someone asked me what hours I work, I'd have to reply, "All of them." Actually, it's really cool to be outside all the time. I feel lucky that I get paid to watch the sunrise, the sunset, the stars come out, the moonrise - every day. Sometimes if I'm lucky I'll see a coyote or even a hawk catching a mouse. The world paints itself a different way for every hour of the day.

It's hot. Fortunately my swather has an air conditioner. The AC in David Lopez's swather broke the other day, so he drove with the door open. When that got unbearably hot he tied two pieces of bailing twine to the steering wheel and set the speed on slow and steady. That way he could use the bailing twine reigns to steer the swather while riding outside. David is so ingenious!

...Another week has passed. A week feels like only a day in swathing time. Today one of the back wheels on my swather snapped off. An inch-and-a-half thick axle just broke in two. It's weird - a wimpy grounding wire takes a whole day to figure out, while a snapped axle is replaced within hours. That's the thing about this job - there's absolutely no schedule. I feel no stress - not even when a tire blows out or the transmission dies on my pickup.

A crop duster flew so close to me that I could have thrown a rock and hit him, even with my bad aim.

I just added up my hours for the month, and I'm tired. I thought some weeks only felt like I worked 60 hours, but they were actually more than 70. I'll be living in a hotel this week because we are now quite far north - near Grand Coulee.


This last week I stayed in room #17 of the Eight Bar B Hotel in Wilbur, Washington (There are only 17 rooms in the hotel). Everyone in Wilbur already knows who we are. I think we are the most exciting thing that's come to town since the Alibi Tavern opened.

A farmer left a note in my pickup this week while it was parked at the edge of the field I was cutting. Later, while walking with the note in my hand from my hotel room to my pickup (about 8 feet), the mailman stopped and called out, "My dad wrote you that note. You can call him any time."

Another time I was driving down Wyberny Rd. when a farmer flagged me down from his tractor to tell me something. I asked him his name, and he said, "Wyberny." As I drive down Krause Rd. I see signs that say "Krause for County Commissioner."

I feel like such an outsider. To be a part of the Wilbur community you have to live there for four generations. To be noticed in Wilbur you only need to stay four minutes.

A restaurant in Wilbur advertised "Five Cheeseburgers for Five Dollars" this week. Jesse, one of our swather drivers, decided it was a good deal and ate all five cheeseburgers in one sitting. We heard him at 5 AM the next morning throwing up all five cheeseburgers. What a deal!

Wilbur is so far north that I saw the Northern Lights this week. Fantastic show, complete with the Milky Way, Meteors, and Satellites. It's also getting pretty cold at night. I'm glad the swather has a heater.

Last Sunday Barry (My boss) and I went for a drive down a little two-track dirt road. It wound down around the hills that drop down to Lake Roosevelt. Halfway down we came upon an abandoned cabin from the 1920's or 30's. It must have been a cozy little place for some settler and his family.

Norwegian Bachelor Farmers

You know how Garrison Keillor (from A Prairie Home Companion) is always making jokes about Norwegian bachelor farmers? Well, I've been cutting some of their fields recently. I first met Larry Martin when he rode into the field on a motorcycle wearing nothing but shorts and shoes. His brother Randy lives nearby in a doublewide and farms only 800 acres. Several generations of inheritances have split the old family farm into smaller and smaller pieces. I talked with Randy for over an hour the other
Light Rays
night. He must be lonely living all by himself out here in the Palouse. He only goes into Spokane or Moses Lake once a year for supplies - twice if there's an emergency. He buys everything else he needs at the local grocery in Wilbur. Even though Randy says he's busy finishing the harvest, he still finds time to talk to me for an hour whenever I see him. Life runs at such a different pace out here on the prairie.

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Created December 23, 2003