Saturday, July 25, 2015


    After two months of rainy weather, the air is clear and the farmers are circling their fields.  They have been moaning the lack of hay weather all summer.  Not anymore. When I walked this morning, the green smell of new-cut hay hung over every field I passed, and swathes of hay raked in tidy rows outlined them like patterns stitched onto a grassy quilt.
     Years ago, my husband's father was a custom hay-baler.  Every summer he cut, tedded, raked and baled over 20,000 square bales and stacked them in airy barns all over the county.  My Own Farmer grew up riding on the hay wagons with friends and loves to point out the various places he bumped across the acres tossing or stacking.  When we were first married we continued the tradition, and I loved riding the wagon with him as it lurched over the furrowed ground. Even on the hottest days, there was a cool breeze generated by the slow forward motion and with two of us working, the pace of stacking was manageable, leaving breath for talking and flirting. 
     Swallows love hay weather, as well.  Every pass of the tractor stirs up heat-struck insects, creating an aerial feast for the acrobatic birds.  With the steady ka-chunk, chunk of the baling arm pushing hay into tight squares, and the wide arcs and swirls of the hungry birds, I often felt that I was inside a symphony.  The music was the tractor, the notes were the birds.
     Baling also provided work and a summer income for the county boys.  Stand on the steps of any general store in the evening and you would see them converging for a cold bottle of pop and a pack of nabs.  The sweat-grimed boys would sit in the cool evening air trading stories of wagons tipping when they rolled into groundhog holes, dusty hay lofts that were often hotter than one hundred degrees, and how many bales they had put up in a day.  Baling gave boys bragging rights.
     It’s different now.  Round balers changed our culture.  Hay baling is no longer a social event because one man can mow, ted, rake and bale his own fields with minimal help.  Even the hay bales can be stacked on wagons and moved to the barns without the touch of a single human hand. 
     I am often enlisted to help with the hay, but now I am relegated to driving a tractor and raking windrows.  I do not like machinery and I drive scared.  I have good reason for my fears.  I have managed to tangle a hay rake into a fence which took two men and some wire pliers to undo.  Twice, I have made turns so tight that the rake tongue cut too close to the tractor and caught on the wheel, riding it up until it was in danger of knocking me out of my seat.  That took two men and another tractor to fix.  I have overlooked groundhog holes and dropped into them so hard that the fillings in my teeth jangled for a week. I fear losing a wheel every time.  I am stupid about the clutch, using it instead of the brakes when headed downhill.
      I have female friends who are not machinery-impaired.  They love talking about the endless circling and the things they notice as they go around.  One friend told me the other day that she saw five deer, two eagles, a fox and a grouse in just one day.  I wouldn’t know.  I am always so focused on the clattering rake riding behind me that I never look around. Just yesterday, I stole a quick glance at the woods beyond the fence and was startled out of my reverie by the sound of the rake scraping a fence post.  Rakes are like that.  Let them out of your sight for a minute and they wander into trouble. 
     My Own Farmer once told me that riding a tractor was as good as taking a vacation.  He finds peace in the steady pace of the work.  I am happy for him.  Today, he is out in the front field baling while Scott rakes.  I hope they are enjoying it.  I know I am.  

Monday, July 20, 2015


     In a place where not one box store exists and no grocery stores offer food or cleaning products, I am grateful for the small general stores that still dot the landscape.  Each valley sports at least one and locals know that there is more to them than meets the eye.
     My first introduction to the friendly service offered by our general stores came shortly after moving to Highland from the city.  I was accustomed to banks that had drive-through windows and late hours but our little bank hadn't acquired such a window. I discovered that it didn't matter when I began shopping at the H and H Cash Store, which was just a short walk from where I lived.  The owner offered credit.  I could walk in, pick up a few things I needed, and then ask Gaye or one of her sons to "just put it on the list."  At the end of the month or whenever I felt like it, I paid off my bill and they scratched my name out of the little notebook that they kept.
     Then one weekend, a friend asked me to travel over the mountains with her.  I didn't have a dime in my pockets and the banks were closed.  After pondering my dilemma for a few moments, I walked up the street to the H and H Cash.  "Gaye, have you ever considered letting someone have a little money on credit?"  I asked.
     She looked up from the sweatshirt she was stitching designs into (you could buy one of her handmade designs for just $8.00) and peered at me over her glasses.  Her blue eyes twinkled.  "How much do you need?" she asked.
     "Oh, I think ten dollars would do," I replied.
      Without another word, she opened the cash drawer, drew out a ten and handed it over.  Then she wrote my name in her little book.  "I know you're good for it," she said.
     That was my first introduction to the hidden charms of general stores.  I later discovered that H and H was also the place to drop off your dry cleaning, which would be picked up by a truck from over the mountains and returned clean and crisp a week later.  H and H Cash was a treasure cave of supplies.  The interior smelled of apples, onions and shoe leather.   If they didn't have what you needed hidden somewhere in one of the dark corners, then they would order it for you. They even carried topographic maps of the area.
      When I married My Farmer, I moved one valley east and discovered Ralston's Grocery.  Anna Lou also allowed credit and as an added bonus, the post office was located behind the south wall.  There was a little window with bars and lots of cute metal mail boxes.  Ralston's was the center of the Highland News Network.  I used to jokingly tell people that I first discovered I was pregnant when I heard it being discussed while picking up my mail.
     The store changed hands, becoming Stonewall Grocery, and the post office was forced by the government to move to new digs dedicated solely to sorting and stuffing.  But, Patsy and Linda, recognizing that there was still an unmet need began allowing people to leave messages for each other on their back counter. Not too long ago, a fellow offered a telescope for sale on Facebook.  I offered to buy it and he left it at Stonewall Grocery for me to pick up.  When he dropped it off, he exchanged it for an envelope I'd left for him with payment. You can't do that at the local Walmart.
    Stonewall Grocery is also a great place to pick up supper.  They offer Wonder Roast chickens for overworked housewives and they are so popular that you have to call ahead in the morning and reserve one for supper that night.  I have friends two valleys over, who will make a special trip just so they can enjoy the juicy goodness of a Wonder Roast.  Stonewall also has a deli and makes sandwiches, homemade brownies and fresh baked banana bread.  They even give up precious shelf space for a satellite of our local library so you can check out a book to read while you eat.
     Other general stores in the area meet different needs.  There are pizzas at one, chicken tenders at another and taco salads at a third.  If I want oysters for Christmas, I can order them from the Country Convenience in Blue Grass.  If I'm craving homemade bread, cookies or pies, Mountain Oasis bakes on Tuesdays and Fridays.They also sell outdoor wood furnaces and guns. If I want some of the best sharp cheddar cheese on the East Coast, then a stop at the little store in Headwaters is necessary.  Headwaters also offers really inexpensive bottles of water.  I asked about this and the owner said, "Well, people come here and they are thirsty.  There's no where else to get water, so it's a service I offer."  None of this is advertised.  Small businesses have a tiny profit margin and can't afford it.  But, word of mouth is enough.  You just have to live here long enough to find it all.
     Now some of the little stores are closing.  Our population is shrinking and there aren't enough people to spread the money around, although our swelling summer population helps.  The general store in Mill Gap will soon lock its doors.  They were the last outpost for a cold coke if you were travelling west over the mountains. Hightown lost its general store when the owner, Jacob Hevener, got too old to work there.  They used to offer Woolrich clothes and Red Wing shoes.  H and H Cash closed its doors three years ago.  I guess I won't be getting money on credit anymore.
     I recently discovered that every time I use a credit card, it costs the store where I use it two to three percent of the sale.  In addition, if my card awards points, the store pays for that, too.  Doesn't seem like much unless your bottom line is tiny anyway.  So, I have made it my mission to shop locally for everything I can buy and to pay cash for all of it.  One day when small stores have been forced out of business, we will miss them.  Not just for their convenience, but for the rich life they brought to our mountains and valleys.  For the friendly greetings, the community support and the ways they made our lives a little easier.  I hope that day never comes.