A Family Affair: Going In - or Out of - Business
July 30, 2013
“When we were back east, we had eleven people and three generations of our family living in one overcrowded home,” she informed me as we sat together at the small wooden table in the corner of the family run convenience store/garage.
In addition to catching up on the local news and weather report each morning, I would hit the first convenience store we would stumble upon after entering a town, pick up a small bottle of milk, fill my thermos with ice, and hit the since most public parks my girl and I passed our hot afternoons in no longer had them.
“Does Overton have a free wifi hot-spot?” I asked her as we met outside of the convenience store.
“Yes, we do, right here,” she responded, as she helped direct me to a shady area across the street in response to my second question. Within a few minutes, we had exchanged stories regarding the stubbornness of Great Pyrenees, brief family histories, and speculations on whether or not America really has begun to escape the grips of the nearly decade-long economic crisis.
One of her relatives had a nearby goat farm, she informed me, and their three Great Pyrenees served a dual purpose: protecting the clans’ children and herding the 75 goats that supplied enough milk to keep the profitable small cottage industry producing cheese, yogurt and ice cream.
The goat farmers had moved east from Fort Collins, CO, and the mechanic (her ex husband), and the convenience store owners had moved west from Vermont, converging on the small town to open their business, the woman at the wooden table shared with me as I downloaded my latest blog and photo essay.
The goat cheese I purchased at the store proved to be one of the healthiest, tastiest meals I had yet enjoyed on the road, and because my sugar levels seemed to have stabilized with the increased exercise, I treated myself to a home-made fried strawberry pie from among the pastries the clan’s grandmother sold at the store.
“It seems all the young people here are in a hurry to grow up and move away to the bigger cities,” the 73-year-old cashier had noted several miles before while I was in Vail, IA. “They often leave for college and never return,” she added, mourning the fact that those few who returned or never left in the first place attended the nearby Catholic church only for their weddings, their children’s baptisms or their parents’ or grandparents’ funerals, spending their Saturday nights at the larger, nearby city’s restaurants or bars, coming home too late to get up for church the following morning.
“Most of the work on our 60 year-old church is done now by retired members,” she added with a note of wistful melancholia in her trailing, faltering voice. “Not that I blame the young people. Other than this store, there are no jobs available here. Family doesn’t matter as much, and most of the local businesses have shut down. They can’t keep up with the competition in the larger towns.”
“Where do you shower, and what do you do when it rains?” a truck driver had asked when I was purchasing replacement inner tubes at Wal Mart in Columbus, NE. He had pointed to the stream of traffic heading in and out of the local truck stop, adding that they had showers.
Trucking and meat processing seemed to be the primary source of income in the first town along US highway 30 that intersected the interstate, a pattern that would be repeated hereafter.
I thanked him for the information, but as the storm clouds gathered, I had assurance from a new friend that I had a place to stay for the night.
“I lived in Boulder for a few years,” he said as we were enjoying the first few refreshing sprinkles of the approaching storm. “I also lived in California for awhile,” he added.
My host at the campground in Fremont had opened her home to me, but her husband wasn’t responding to my knock at the front door since she hadn’t been able to alert him of my arrival.
As I awaited her return call, her neighbor and his friend had spotted my girl in our oversized rig and invited me to join them for a beer. I declined the beer, but gladly accepted their second offer, a glass of ice water.
“What brought you back here?” I asked as my girl stretched out on the lawn, lazily eying a cat that had dashed under a nearby car.
“My parents wanted me to come back and help with the farm,” he replied. “Originally, they had quite a large chunk of land. If we had been able to keep it, they would have been sitting on a gold mine because of ethanol production and efficient satellite farming,” he added, “but they had accumulated too much debt to be able to save the property. Rather than farming, I spend my days doing short hauls for the local trucking company, pulling pretty much anything and everything to the nearby towns.”
His children were now grown, chasing their own dreams pursuing non-agriculturally based careers. After spending his days on the road, he often lands at his friend’s house, letting his dogs romp in the grass while nursing a beer or two.
Holding together a family, farm or business reliant upon unpredictable weather and tumultuous economic times is difficult, indeed. I can’t help but wonder why we continue struggling to do so, but as I take another sip of ice water, I smile, relax and attentively listen to yet another string of stories, watching the flattened Nebraska clouds roll overhead while enjoying the sound of passing semi trucks a few blocks away.
In Overton, I savor the last few bites of home-made strawberry pie, toss down my last swig of milk, pick up my thermos of ice, and walk across the street to stuff my girl back into the trailer, assuring her that in a fewer than 150 miles, she will be able to see our family again. We are almost home.