Evidently, today is International Walk to School Day. Google Maps informs me that if I were to walk to school, assuming that I wanted to arrive at 7 AM, I would need to leave my house at about 3 in the morning. It’s pretty dark and cold around here that time of day, so I decided to pass.
Yesterday, I was driving home behind a dump truck slightly overfilled with soil richly intermixed with manure, and as a fine fog of the farm country’s finest blew onto my car and through my air vents, I realized just how different my daily commute is from many others. Since my drive to school is chiefly characterized by its darkness, I thought I would bring to you some highlights from my drive home.
The faculty parking lot is located between the high school and a pastoral scene of rolling alfalfa fields. I leave it and head south. Our school’s next-door neighbor is a big white farmhouse nestled in a copse of leafy trees; the enclosed porch in front glitters with leaded glass panes that, like the house, probably predate the school by almost a century. I often wonder about who lives there, and what they thought about having this huge, shiny school pop up down the street, the football stadium and baseball diamond in their back yard.
I go on, through a round-about that slingshots me due east. I pass a sign advertising FAINTING GOATS and a farm that belongs to one of my students’ families. Depending on the time of year and how long I’ve been stuck in my room grading/prepping/dealing with stuff post-bell, I may be sharing the road with a scattered herd of cross-country runners in Columbia High t-shirts and shoes the improbable colors of highlighters. Sometimes I recognize a student in the herd and think about honking, but I have visions of freaking them out and causing them to stumble or stampede or something, so I leave them to the peace and rhythm of the road.
As I drive, I can’t count all of the critters I pass. In the first few blocks I’ll pass two homes with front yards converted into goat pastures — not the big creepy-eyed nannies and billies, but adorable pygmy goats that look like more like four-legged tribbles than livestock. There are fields with beautiful horses behind split-rail fences, tails flicking the occasional fly from their glossy brown (usually) or piebald (often) coats. The Appaloosa is the state horse, and there are a few of them between home and school as well; I’ll also pass an Arabian horse ranch on my way. For a stretch, I run parallel to the route I once drove to get to my own high school; if it is still there, I know that I am driving south of a ranch that raised awe-inspiringly beautiful Percherons. My favorite part of my commute is close to home, when I jig one more mile south and turn alongside a horse farm that reliably produces a handful of adorable foals every spring. This year, there were only two — a brown and a paint — and I’ve been very much enjoying them grow up.
Occasionally I’ll have to veer toward the center of the road to give some room to a fall-feathered chicken as it pecks for goodies in the shoulder. There are cows, too — chiefly Holsteins and some solid black breed, although if I take a slightly different route to spice things up, I drive past a trio of cattle that look like slightly unambitious longhorns. (My route home doesn’t take me past any llamas or alpacas, sadly, but I can always get my alpaca fix by driving north to my parents’ house; on the way, there’s a very cute foursome of red alpacas sharing a corner lot with two Samoyeds.) Closer to home I’ll drive past a flock of fat wooly sheep, sometimes kept company by a triad of spotted dogs.
Before I hit my first stoplight, I travel about six and a half miles down a two-lane paved country road, passing hay bale monoliths, corn crops far taller than I am and growing so densely you can’t tell one plant from the next, tangled fields of pumpkin vines, reeking expanses of mint (trust me — in that quantity and in close proximity to dairy cows, mint doesn’t smell so great), yellowing onion crops, and recently shorn acres now bearing nothing more fruitful than bare dirt. I pass a handful of business farms, including one with a sign advertising cheese curds and a pickle festival and another advertising pumpkins and a corn maze. Corn mazes are a big thing around here; I think there are at least three in our general area where you can spend a cool October night getting lost amongst nine-foot-tall corn stalks.
I drive twelve miles in all and go through only three intersections with stoplights; in between, each “block” is one mile long, and only some of them have stop signs. One intersection is supervised by a pair of six-foot sunflowers, permanently bowing to the passing cars under the weight of their massive heads. Another, near an elementary school, is monitored by a cheery pumpkin-headed scarecrow in a tire swing. In the mornings, I’ll drive most of the way to school without ever encountering another vehicle (except when I cross the highway that connects Meridian and Kuna); in the afternoons, I’m usually part of a peloton made up of anything from glossy new SUVs to fifty-year-old pickups, from station wagons bristling with CB radio antennae to hulking pieces of farm equipment that take up half of the oncoming lane and can’t accelerate above 20mph. (These huge tractors and combines and hay rakes give me the heeby-jeebies; when I was a kid I saw The Man in the Moon and the tractor scene apparently scarred me for life. I try to give them a wide berth.)
My commute takes me past a couple of Mormon churches and a Bosnian Muslim community center. It also takes me through two school zones, through which everyone dutifully drives a careful 20 mph until safely in the 50mph zone again. I pass many be-strollered mothers waiting for school buses, grade school kids on bicycles, and the occasional father with a pink-helmeted daughter on the back of his motorcycle. I pass cookie-cutter subdivisions, sad old farmhouses, palatial countryside mansions built by California refugees, sway-backed barns, as well as ruined barns whose backs have long since broken. I pass a golf course and a soccer park, a grocery store and a huge complex of dilapidated storage units that look suspiciously as though they’d started their career as chicken barns. I pass the place where two of my high school classmates could have died in a car accident; I pass the place where a third did. I pass handmade roadside crosses hung with faded silk flowers and old-fashioned windmills stretching up to embrace the wind.
I could take the interstate to work; it would add seven miles and about five minutes to my commute, but on top of that I would lose half an hour of quiet, half an hour of wide open spaces in which I can breathe deeply and release the worries of the day. I would miss out on seeing my dappled foal as it grows almost as tall as its mother; I would miss seeing red-winged blackbirds scatter into the air above the corn fields; I would miss all of the little bits of life that make the place that I live, and the place that I work, the way they are. All things considered, I think I’ll stick to the back roads.