The whole thing had the look and feel of a tourist board commercial narrated by Tim Allen.
Man casually sprawled on weather-faded Adirondack. Cargo shorts and faded sweatshirt spiked with the smell of recent bonfire. Four days of Brett Favre stubble growth.
Stars and moon big and bright and close. Ancient and stately cabin set on a bluff above a glassy, clear lake. Aroma of towering pines and pending autumn. Beach-sound of kids playing an unsanctioned game of shuffleboard hockey in the stolen hours well past bedtime.
A scene fit for primetime television. Except for one thing.
Those giant feet propped up on the opposite Adirondack. Deeply calloused and cracked soles. Long, spindly, garishly-knuckled toes. Polished by a week of sand and beach, yes, but with size-16 nails the color, curvature and texture of the fossilized potato chips parked beneath the back seat since that birthday party two years ago.
Normally wrapped in thick wool socks and steel-toe boots. Normally out in the woods with chainsaw or buried deep in manure or working the clutch of the John Deere. These feet had no business being in any kind of commercial. The only thing they could plausibly promote would be a haunted house.
There was one other detail you don’t get in the travel ads: an iPhone tucked deep into the left cargo pocket, buzzing and purring and whizzing relentlessly with all the assorted modern workplace urgencies.
Even on vacation there’s no stopping the Great Big Gristmill. Ever since the first investment banker opened the sluice by strapping a Blackberry to his $300 belt the corporate world hasn’t been quite the same. What was once a nine-to-five flow streaming down the millrun toward the sturdy, wooden wheel is now a 24/7/365 torrent. Nights, weekends, and vacations. Conference calls. Red-eye flights. Long, rambling voicemails. Short, terse emails. Emergency meetings. Deadlines. Deliverables.
And September is when the driveshaft is especially well-lubricated, the millstones duly sharpened. It’s harvest season. Time to get this year’s deals closed before fiscal year-end reporting. And time to start raising capital for next year’s crop. Everyone, even those who dare a late-September vacation, has their nose to the grindstone.
Given the finger-swipe ease of checking in, it’s nearly impossible to totally check out. I can’t complain. The same technology that enables me to be the Vice President of Farming is also the one that can blow up half a vacation. You take the good with the bad.
But late one night by the warmth of a roaring fire and under the hypnotizing drone of waves slapping beach, I pecked carefully away at my laptop and realized finally that I had had enough. Soon enough vacation would be over and I’d be on the 6:15 a.m. to Houston. So I ginned up a list of legitimately spurious excuses – the ones involving canoes, sand dunes, and one-bar cell reception – and deployed them fast and heavy and often. I gave up on channeling my inner Michael Milken.
Thus liberated from the corporate grind we spent our week exploring the gorgeous backroads of northern Michigan, slowing frequently to admire an old barn, a massive woodpile, a herd of alpine goats, or a tidy row of vines.
We stopped in at the woolen mill, dropped off 70 lbs. of Merino wool, toured the operation, and peppered the proprietor mercilessly with questions. What do you feed your sheep? When’s the best time to shear? When do you lamb? How do we get stronger wool? How do we get more wool?
We went berry picking up on the Old Mission Peninsula. While my crew picked sixteen pints of berries – four of which bypassed containers and went straight through evidence-stained lips to bellies – I picked the fruit farmer’s brain. How deep are those grape trellises? Cedar or treated lumber? What kind of wire is this? What is your approach to weed control? What about Japanese beetles? How do you know when the fruit is perfectly ripe?
We befriended a 5th generation apple farmer, a graying and slight fellow with clear blue eyes, a wistful demeanor, and a set of blue coveralls two sizes too big. He led us through 92 acres of family orchards where we eventually picked nine bushels of Johnathan, McIntosh, and Gala.
For two hours I probed. What does orchard acreage go for these days? Can you run pigs through here? Or would sheep be better? How do you beat scab? What about codling moth? Do the pheromone traps really work? What is your secret to pruning? What sort of yield are you getting? What is the apple market like today? Who’s buying?
He was as patient as Mother Teresa and even slightly amused by my enthusiasm. When he mentioned that he had sent all five kids off to college with a share of the apple profits I added up some back-of-the-envelope figures, scratched my puzzled head, and asked one more question. How did you do it?
“My advice,” he said, “is to have your great, great grandfather buy the land.”
So I sat in that trusty Adirondack, belly full of cherry pie, admiring the deep vacation skies that made all other skies – including our decent ones back home – look junior varsity by comparison.
I watched the periodic flickering of headlights through the trees across two miles of lake, and a pair of retirees shuffling from car to cabin, moving to the slow, assured beat of social security checks. All the while I could not stop thinking about the graying apple farmer, and about grapes, and firewood, and wool and cattle. It was as if, in the background, my little computer was running all of the newly-downloaded updates that would keep my farm operating system current. ”Vice President of Farming, version 2.3.”
My left cargo pocket began to buzz. No ordinary email, but a long and deep buzzing. A 10 p.m. phone call. I ignored it on the assumption – based on years of painful data collection – that it’s never a good thing to get a call from work at that hour. No one dials you up at ten to award a bonus, or a fancy new title, or even a little pat on the back. They call because something has gone terribly wrong at the Mill.
The phone purred again. Things must be bad, I thought. I better get this.
I grudgingly dug the phone out without taking my eyes off the Biggest Dipper I had ever seen. A lonely cricket busied himself by playing a determined, but fruitless, solo.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear the earnest, experienced voice of my neighbor on the other end.
The coyotes had been out howling, he said. And so he decided to look in on things. Particularly the new lambs.
Everything’s good, he said, everyone’s fine. ”There’s nothing to worry about.”