Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Moral Tale of Bags and Rabbits—Recycle, Reuse, Refuse

A Moral Tale of Bags and Rabbits—Recycle, Reuse, Refuse
“Recycle? Are you kidding? I don’t have room to store a bunch of junk. How would I get it to wherever it’s gotta go?  It’s too hard.”

I understood her objections. Where I lived in Washington it was easy. The mega-giant Waste Management distributed recycle bins along with the garbage bins and emptied both on pick-up day. We paid for recycling as part of our garbage bill. I sorted aluminum and metal into one bin, cardboard and paper into another and glass into the third. Since then, WM has simplified the process. Everything recyclable goes into one bin. Their recycle bin is three times the size of the garbage bin. This means three fourths of what we throw away could be recycled and reused. Think about it.
It is different out here in eastern Montana, out here where distance is measured in hours. My friend is right. Recycling is harder here. “How often do you go to Havre,” I asked her.

“At least once every couple weeks,” she answered. “Why?”

I gave her a brochure from Recycle Hi-Line. It lists businesses and organizations in Havre that work to help minimize waste in our landfills. “Why not start with just one item, say, plastics or newspaper. Take them with you whenever you go to Havre. And if you happen to go on the first Saturday of the month, well, you are in luck. You can drop all you’ve collected at the monthly Recycle Drive. There is one this Saturday.”

Recycling or reusing is mostly about paying attention. Take plastic bags, for instance.  When did retailers begin stuffing every purchase into plastic bags? I defy you to drive any public roadway, no matter how isolated, without finding flapping bags twisted onto barbed wired fences or blowing across the prairie like non-biodegradable tumbleweeds.
If you have a strong constitution, take a trip to the landfill. Contact Clay Vincent, Hill County Sanitarian; he’ll take you on tour of our new facility. Be sure to go inside the shop to see which caterpillar tractor has been immobilized by clumps of balled up plastic bags in its tracks.  Yep, the same bags we carry home from the store. And say hello to the gal whose sole never-ending job is to comb the landfill, chasing down runaway plastic.

My solution to the plastic bag problem is to refuse them. I began recycling plastic bags by saving them and taking them back to the retailer. Some I reused as can liners. Even when I had no purchases during the week, the bags seemed to multiply. I suspected the worst. Bundled together in a small space, they did what anything else would do—breed. Worse than rabbits, they multiplied exponentially.
I had to re-think my tactics. For years I have used cloth bags for groceries; that is, when I remembered. I am embarrassed to tell you how long it took me, once I made the decision to refuse plastic, to remember to carry cloth bags into the store. Now, how hard is that! All I had to do was pay attention. Eventually, I automatically assessed my grocery list, determined the number of bags I would need, added two more bags to carry the items I might purchase that are not on my list, and grabbed that number of cloth bags and headed into the grocery store.

Did I say “grocery” store? Modify that, please, to include hardware, plumbing, clothing, library, book store, any and all retailers. Again, pay attention. How often do you go into a store for one item which you can easily carry out in your hand, minus the ubiquitous plastic bag?  
Cloth bags are easy to come by. Out of idle curiosity, I took a break, went to my van and counted my cloth bags. I counted twenty-seven. I get them from all kinds of places. Of those twenty-seven bags, I paid for two, a total cash outlay of two dollars. I can only conclude that my reusable, washable cloth bags, in the privacy of my closed van, just like their evil kin, the plastic bags, just like rabbits, breed litters.

Gazing at my reusable bags, a feeling of righteous saintliness came over me. I know I am taking a stand on this blight on the environment, that my small efforts help decrease the total cost of maintaining the landfill and ultimately, increase its lifespan. What if we all did this one small thing? Think about it. It is an easy place to begin.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

August 30, 2012

Nature or Nurture?—The New, Improved Kochia

Nature or Nurture?—The New, Improved Kochia
Recently I have been re-thinking my personal war against kochia, a common noxious weed, otherwise known as tumbleweed, romanced in song by the Sons of the Pioneers, engraved in our western history by Zane Gray. One day the thought tumbled into my head, at that moment vacant and dreamy, that nobody ever wins a war. How true, I thought. So why do I stand out in the blazing sun, my hands encased in protective gloves, ripping kochia up by the roots? Oh, my aching back!

Year after year, since I moved back to the Milk River Valley, I have, armed with spades, hoes, poison and my own two hands, pulled, hacked, drowned and tried to banish this weed from my yard. By the time I have cleared the front yard, the back yard is overgrown. I attack the back yard, clean it and clear it, to then find a new healthy crop thumbing its nose at me from the front yard.

From early spring until snowfall, this has been my battle plan. No more. I declare an armistice. From now on, dear kochia, along with nature, I shall nurture you. Well, maybe I won’t go that far. There is a better way to spend my days than fighting this ever-present weed . . . er, plant. Surely I have more brains than a bit of vegetable matter. Especially a specimen that dries up and gets prickly in the winter.  I, on the other hand, in the winter . . . oh, never mind.
What makes a plant adapt to a new environment? Why will it, poor unloved orphan, cling to its adoptive mother earth when all it receives is kicks and scorn? These are serious questions.

Kochia, detested weed, was originally brought to the plains from the steppes of Russia, to be used as an ornamental backdrop in landscaping projects. I can well imagine its puny green brain cells peering out and thinking, “Dude, I like it here. Not much rainfall—perfect. Hot sun in summer—perfect. Cold wind in winter—perfect. Open plains upon which to spill my prolific seed once the wind has uprooted me and sent me tumbling, wending my way across country. It’s home away from home.”

Yep, brought here to be landscape backdrop. And why not? In season, kochia fills out, round and bushy, green as can be, and grows about seven feet tall if left to its own devices. If you squinch your eyes just right, it’s kind of pretty. Plant your day lilies and peonies in front. Take photos to send to all your relatives back east. They’ll think you live in paradise. And, best of all, you never have to plant it year after year. Who could ask for anything more?
So the kochia, which was never asked its opinion, was reluctantly dragged half way around the globe, transplanted to the new world and flourished. Soon, too soon, it found itself in laboratories, the victim of science, desperate experiments contrived to discover a means to eradicate the subject of the experiment.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the weed was perfecting its life cycle. Emerging in spring, tall and full in summer, turning brilliant fiery red in autumn, dry and tumbling across the plains in the winter, insuring a lively crop of offspring to green up the next spring. Soon kochia achieved its destiny—it filled the valleys and liberally sprinkled the hills. In a good year, it ignored fences, tearing them down from sheer weight and volume. In a bad year, desperate ranchers cut it, baled it, and fed it to starving cattle.
Meanwhile, back at the lab, chortling scientists developed a killer, the gardener’s friend. They called it, in true western fashion, “Round-up”.  All through the prairies, gardeners, ranchers and farmers suited up, grabbed the sprayer and headed out the door to cut the kochia off at the pass, yelling, “Kill! Kill!”

Until one day, kochia, its nature outwitting deadly science, sucked in the poison, licked its lips and grew eight feet tall. It’s here. It’s now. It’s won.

So here’s my plan, now that I’m no longer at war with a weed. When visitors ask me to identify that beautiful tall, green bushy plant behind the baby’s breath and iris and poppies and daisies, I’ll mumble and hang my head and say something like, “It was here when I got here. Grows real pretty, don’t it?”
Then in the winter, I’ll drizzle it with tinsel and twinkling lights and sell it to my relatives back east as Prairie Christmas Trees. Whadda ya think?

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 6, 2012

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Make a Difference—Do What One Person Can Do

Make a Difference—Do What One Person Can Do
When I first joined the City Council in Harlem, my friend Victor Miller, Blaine County Commissioner, told me to go to meetings, all kinds of meetings. He said that I would eventually settle into one or two organizations which most interested me. So when I saw a meeting announced, I showed up. Why? Education. I learned a bit and knew where to go when I needed more information. Consequently, a potpourri of meeting schedules began to show up in my monthly Council packet.

One afternoon I drove to Havre for my first Unified Disposal Board meeting. Within minutes I knew I had found my abiding interest. Garbage. And if you saw my home, you might think, “Uh huh, I can see that.” My entire house is furnished and decorated with junk, albeit revamped, refurbished, gussied up artistic junque. But this isn’t about me.        
At that point I was still painting and flooring and otherwise working on my house, one room at a time. As I finished each room, I unpacked the hordes of cardboard boxes holding furnishings and furbelows, broke down the cardboard to recycle, and . . . here my story gets ugly.

“Where do I take this stuff to be recycled?” I asked around town.

I heard: “We don’t recycle.” “What is recycle?” “Maybe in Havre.” 

“You mean I have to drive to Havre to recycle?” My question was answered with shrugs.

Meanwhile I had purchased several thirty-gallon trash cans in which to store assorted plastics, aluminum, metal and paper. I planned to periodically haul them to, you guessed it, Havre.
By the time my house renovations were nearly complete, I had accumulated a small mountain of cardboard, about the size of Saddle Butte, flattened, stacked and sorted by relative size. I loaded my van and drove to Havre. I stopped at the various places that had been suggested as possibles and maybes.

I heard, “No, not us.” “We used to but it is too expensive.”  “Maybe later but not now.” “You best take it to the dump.”

In the wind and the cold and the drifting snow and flapping plastic bags, I sailed cardboard after cardboard into a garbage at the Havre landfill, flinching with each toss of a box. Later, people in Harlem laughed at me for driving all the way to Havre when I should have known there is a perfectly good container site up the hill in Harlem. Ha, ha.
Several months later I loaded up my thirty-gallon cans, now full, and hauled them to Havre. The story was a rerun. My carefully sorted recyclables landed in the landfill. I felt defeated, my efforts gone for naught.

At the same time, unbeknownst to me, a woman named Candi Zion and her friends were gearing up for a new venture. They call it Recycle Hi-Line. With unrelenting dedication, these tenacious pioneers have paved the way to “recycle heaven” in Havre. They have partnered with various local businesses and the Unified Disposal Board to make “recycle” a household word.
Today, a mere six years later, my story would be different. Pacific Steel, the Havre Day Activity Center, and Battery Warehouse at Havre Muffler and Brake, all accept cardboard. When I drive out to the landfill south of Havre, thanks to the efforts of Recycle Hi-Line and the UDB, I can find containers dedicated to tires, metal, and wood. Throughout Havre I can easily find places to dispose of all my recyclables, including eye glasses, batteries and phone books. For a complete list, check the latest at recyclehiline.wordpress.com.

So a couple weeks ago, I figured it is time somebody in Harlem started talking about recycling.  Not being interested in re-inventing the wheel, and in order to gather more information and to elicit help, I showed up at a Recycle Hi-Line meeting. These folks made me feel like I was coming home. I was warmly welcomed, immediately given a task, included in all discussions and knew I had signed up for a lifetime membership.

Saturday I am hauling, among other things, my old computer to the corner of 1st Street and 5th Avenue where Pacific Steel and Recycling will be accepting E-waste free of charge from 8:00 to noon. You can be the first person on your block to recycle monitors, copiers, keyboards, game boxes, scanners, printers, flash cards, TV sets, towers, cell phones, rechargeable batteries, cable boxes, laptops, ipods or any similar electronic device. Candi says, “If it runs off electricity or has memory, bring it.” 
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
August 2, 2012

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

And Another One Bites the Dust

And Another One Bites the Dust
This week Victor Miller died. ‘Most everybody in the state knew Vic. He was a former mayor of Harlem, a Blaine County Commissioner at two different times, talented drummer who nearly achieved national fame, a tireless storyteller, and a man with a heart as big as he was. And Victor was a big man. Victor was my friend.
It was a hard week for me. Every morning I walked down to City Shop for my usual coffee with the boys before work. I wanted to hear the report on our friend in the hospital. Victor was one of our coffee regulars. He called us his “kitchen cabinet”.  He often said we kept him sane. We agreed. His empty chair haunted us. His oversized coffee cup hung on a nail on the wall, untouched.

When I got back home, I flitted from task to task, from kitchen to garden to shop and back around in circles again, finishing nothing. Heaviness like a black cloud had settled around my shoulders. My friend was dying.

I’m not family. Usually when I visited with Vic, it was with the boys at coffee. But I relied on him for advice, for the history of some of the issues I had to deal with, to better understand my role in Harlem City government and for words of encouragement.  Unlike many of our mutual friends, I didn’t grow up with Vic. I vaguely remember that fat little boy standing on the street corner wearing overalls when I was a “sophisticated” high school girl.

I first got to know Victor when a friend of mine married him. Vic was a serious musician at that time, making a name for himself with his drums. When I came to Harlem to visit my Dad I always walked across the tracks to visit Vic and Cynthia. We’d hang out and play pinochle until the wee hours when I’d walk back home through the snow. They came to visit me in Washington. A photo I treasure is of his family and my family, our arms around one another, sitting crowded on the steps of our house in Poulsbo, the shadow of the photographer stretched across the lawn. When Vic and Cynthia’s marriage reached its end, Victor still kept in touch with me, if only through his famous Christmas Letters. He mailed CDs of his music to me. And then when I moved back to Harlem, there was Vic, holding out his hand in friendship.
The Victor all of us knew was a performer.  As his friend Richard said, when Victor entered a room everyone knew he was there. He knew how to hold the crowd, to entertain. At home he treasured his solitude but in his public life, Victor was always on stage, whether behind his set of drums, chairing a meeting, or sitting around a conference table. Victor could tell stories that started with point A and wandered the map to point Z, then wrap up the story where he started. Along the way, he dropped nuggets of wisdom and humor.

Maddening at times? Oh yes! Could he ever work himself into a snit! Stingy? Uh, let’s say careful with money; both the taxpayers money and his own. A story Victor would tell on himself is that when he traveled he carried empty toilet paper rolls in his luggage. In the hotel bathroom, he left the empty roll and packed away the full one. When he told the story, I didn’t believe him.  His best friends assure me the story is true.
Vic loved meetings, maybe because each meeting gave him a stage, but more, I think, because each meeting presented an opportunity to improve the community, albeit in tiny frustrating steps. A couple times I hitched a ride with Vic to meetings across the border in Canada and on those trips, one-on-one, captive in a car, I got to know a different Victor. This Vic was more sober, serious, personal. He opened a window into his soul and gave me a peek at the essential man. I cherished those times. I thank you for that, Vic.

Above all else, Victor was a deeply spiritual man. He lived every moment of his life hard, full speed ahead. He agonized over issues. He lost sleep when his friends were in trouble. He tried to hide his vulnerable heart behind a shield of garrulous loquacity. He laughed. He cried. He loved. He hurt. In other words, he was human.

Good-by, Vic, I’ll miss you.
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
August 23, 2012

Beware the Invasion of the Abominable Mutant Ninja Zucchini

 Beware the Invasion of the Abominable Mutant Ninja Zucchini  
Ah, the joys of gardening. When the winds and snows of January beat against the northwest corner of my house, I sit snug at my dining table surrounded by an array of seed catalogs, each photo designed, arranged and enhanced to induce lust in my heart.

At first perusal I blithely mark anything and everything my heart desires. The second time through, I eliminate all but that which can be coaxed into growth in zone three. This leaves a fraction from which to choose, but still, I dream new gardens into becoming.

I pick, purchase, wait, plant, wait, nurture, wait, water, and wait some more. If the plant is a flower, and if it actually survives, you would think that I had given birth to each blossom. When the plant under my scrutiny is a vegetable, finally, O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!  At last the peas or cucumbers or tomatoes are ripe for harvest.

In this inhospitable year of late frosts, intemperate heat, dearth of water and gargantuan grasshoppers, I watch helplessly as my pitiful garden, gasping for another shot from the watering hose, shrivels and dries.  

While even the tree leaves hang wan and listless in the drought; one exception, oasis of green in the center of my desert garden, shoulder high, stands the dauntless zucchini.

It is beyond me why anybody in their right mind would plant a zucchini squash. But, in the insanity brought on by winter fever, I picked up a bedding plant at the first opportunity. I am not greedy. I contented myself with one plant in a four inch pot.

It grew. Now, every morning, feeling like Indiana Jones, armed with a machete in one hand and a .357 in the other, I wade through the jungle of umbrella leaves into the center of my zucchini vine, shove aside the humongous squash blossoms, and twist off those vegetables which grew overnight. I am faithful in this task because I like my zucchini small and tender. If I let one go for two days, it grows out of bounds.  Every day for the past month I have feasted. I have an entire cookbook dedicated to zucchini. I stuffed bagsful in my freezer for bread, cakes or a winter vegetable treat. The overflow I try to give away. Enough already. I am satiated. But my plant shows no sign of abatement.

These days, when my friends see me coming, my arms filled with zucchinis, they lock their doors. I have tried disguising them in bouquets of hollyhocks or day lilies. It doesn’t work. There is nothing for it but to leave the remainder to overwhelm. There must be something I can do, some possibility I have left unexplored.

Since none of my Montana friends will answer their phones when “Zuchinni Woman” calls, I dialed a friend from Washington. “What shall I do?” I asked.

“Hmmm. You could slice one in half lengthways, hollow it out and use it for snowshoes,” he replied.

“Brilliant,” I said. “Oh, my gosh, the larger ones could be made into wading pools for children.”

“Or stock watering tanks for horses and cattle,” he offered.

“If one hollowed them out in the same field where one needed the watering tank, the seed would lie dormant through the winter, sprout in the spring and grow a new tank for next year,” I said. By now I wriggled with excitement at the possibilities. “I could carve out canoes with which to float the river.”

“Or create yard art with your chainsaw,” added my friend.  “Grizzly bears and timber wolves. You could sell them at the Farmer’s Market in Havre.”

I closed my eyes and drifted into la-la land. I saw myself, like Johnny Appleseed, trekking the fertile valleys, sowing my prize giant zucchini seeds wherever I went, lauded in song and story, statues erected in town squares, my name to be engraved forever in history.

But wait. What if my dream back-fires? What if, just what if, this seed of mine is an escapee from the engineering labs at Monsanto, a reject, a mutant similar to the flesh-and-blood eating Audrey Jr. from the movie, “The Little Shop of Horrors”. Instead of praise, I would be reviled throughout the land. Men in bio-suits armed with napalm would dog my footsteps, futilely trying to eradicate the monsters I unwittingly set forth to multiply. Oh, the horror!

But wait again. How do I know? How can I tell? Do I have a precious prize? Or do I have a freak? What is that elephantine zucchini, so prolific in my garden? Until I know for sure, I must protect it, guard it. So if you see the razor wire fence with umbrella leaves poking above it, please keep out.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
August 16, 2012

Next Year Country—Fried Grasshoppers and Chokecherries

Next Year Country—Fried Grasshoppers and Chokecherries
When I moved back to Harlem, what was supposed to be my lawn looked to me to be a forty acre grass-infested weed patch.  In reality, huge as it seemed, my house sits on a mere two city lots with a large back yard. I was used to natural landscaping with nary a blade of grass to nurture. And danged if I was going to start. I cringed at the thought of spouting our limited water onto grass to mow to water to mow and so it goes.

 The first year in my transformation plan, I set out strawberries to augment the raspberries which already had a good hold on the southeast corner. A friend gave me two apple trees, which I dug up, dragged home and dug in. The next year I planted, in the guise of naked sticks, chokecherries, juneberries and currants. For good measure, I added another apple tree. In addition I planted a salad garden, two herb gardens and a potato patch. Each year I add a few more flowers. Each year I thought, “Wait until next year.”
Last year was the first year I really enjoyed the fruits of my labor. Daily I foraged, picked and harvested. Nightly I chopped, juiced, boiled and stirred. I stocked my shelves with jeweled jars of bounty. I stuffed my freezer with rhubarb and apples for pies. My herbs, laid out to dry on every flat surface, filled the air with exotic aroma.  

This year my apple trees are hung with exactly two apples, probably bitter and wormy.  Both the raspberries and strawberries are on strike, thanks to a late freeze, and refuse to do anything but look pretty. The same freeze seems to have smote the juneberries. The robins made short shrift of the smattering of fruit.
But, ah, the currants. Well, one bush. That one bush was laden with lovely ruby orbs. Others look good, green and lush, but are barren.  Still, I harvested berries enough for currant jelly, and that is an accomplishment. Each small batch of jelly requires hours of picking the tiny fruit. The only difference between picking currants and huckleberries is that I don’t have to climb the mountain to find the currants. With each, the taste is worth the effort.

Last Friday, while watering flowers and tomato plants, I noticed that the chokecherries had begun turning color. Yesterday I picked my first gallon and simmered the plump cherries for juice to make jelly and syrup. The up side is that the cherries are the largest I have ever seen. The down side is that they only grace the south side of three bushes.

Meanwhile, ardently battling me for my garden produce, is a plague of grasshoppers. I have a lovely crop of hoppers. Busy little buggers, they are. Raspberry leaves must be delicious because they chomped each leaf into a doily. Once they had decimated the raspberry leaves, the herd transferred to the hollyhocks, turning the huge leaves to lace. There must be a way I can capitalize on these frilly beauties. Make tablecloths or mantillas or something. Instead of Belgian Lace, I shall have “Grasshopper Lace”.

Now they want my chokecherries. Not the leaves. The fruit. So far we are two to one in the second round and I am ahead. That means for every two whole berries I pick, one on the bush is half chewed.

But maybe I am looking at this problem wrongly. After all, in some cultures, grasshoppers are a food, right? Their little bodies should be rather crisp and sweet, given what mine have been feeding on.

So if I mix melted chocolate, butter and marshmallow crème, stir in a handful of hoppers, voila, grasshopper crispy treats.

Or, why not dip a few in beer batter, drop them in the deep fryer and serve with chips.

Or baked in a casserole layered with potatoes, cheese and cream. Scalloped hoppers.

Or sprinkled on crusty dough with Italian sauce and mozzarella—pizza for that late night snack? The possibilities are endless.

Next year, I’ll have a great garden. I feel it in my bones.  I’m on the search for a wild plum tree.  The fruit is tiny but they make the best tart syrup you’ve ever slathered onto a pancake. After I find my plum tree, I’ll scout for buffalo berries. They are almost impossible to harvest with their brutal thorns, but I’m stubborn. I may have the most unusual orchard, wild fruit most people wouldn’t want, but, oh, how distinctively delicious.

Mmmm. Grasshopper fritters drizzled with chokecherry-mint sauce. Seconds, anyone?

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
August 9, 2012

My Abysmal Failure in a One Day Business Venture

My Abysmal Failure in a One Day Business Venture
I felt like I threw a party and nobody showed up.

In an effort to clear out the storage pantry of my life, I decided to have a yard sale. Periodically I cruise my rooms, sort out items I haven’t used in a while (ten years?), gather up things I realize I will never use, including once-valuable knicker-knackers and other tchotchkes. Trash or treasure, I have a houseful.

If I need to rid my life of just a little junk, I donate the stuff to the Salvation Army.  But this time, I sorted out a virtual mountain of things. I decided to pass them along to others and make a buck along the way.

The local gurus of junk marketing have successful yard sales. I hear them talk.  Always hold a sale on the Saturday nearest the first or the fifteenth of the month, paydays, they say.  One yard-sale maven reported she made six hundred dollars at her yard sale. Well, I made a thousand at mine, another hometown woman bragged. As I gathered items, cleared entire sections of my dwelling, and minimized my stuff, visions of sweet success floated before me. In my mind, I began to spend my bonanza.
Since I had company visiting, good friends to help me, I decided to hold my sale last Saturday, ignoring the advice of the experts. Payday time or not, it shouldn’t make that much difference, I reasoned.

Vidya, a meticulous woman, lettered the posters. David helped me clean out my yard cabin where I store garden tools, my recycle bins, old furniture frames I intend to restore some day (don’t say it), and those things I don’t know where to put but know I want to keep. My goodness, I had a hoard of stuff. I even found some strange vintage tools my Dad had preserved. Vidya went to the basement with me to help me as I brutally trimmed back my life goods. Ho, ho! We made a haul. This was good stuff, things I had once cherished, but had languished from lack of use.

I grew up in a home with two sets of everything. My family used what we called “everyday” dishes and tablecloths and pillow slips. We stored those fancier and nicer items we labeled “good”, and good meant for company, in closets and cupboards, protected from the grubby everyday fingers of us children. We had a parlor, which we cleaned every Saturday, but which remained untouched behind closed doors until company came. Then we threw open the doors, built a fire to warm the room and displayed all the hidden “good” stuff.
At a tender age I determined my life would be different. Everything I owned would be beautiful. Everything would be used every day. And so it has been.

My problem is that I continually find another beautiful thing or two. So out with the old and in with the new.  If, after I throw out a former treasure, I feel remorse, oh, well, it’s just stuff. More stuff will replace it. There is no such thing as lack.

The day of the sale my friends and I were up at dawn. We set up tables, unpacked boxes, priced everything for a quick sale and waited for the early-birds to arrive. But at eight o’clock, starting time, nobody had even driven by. At eight-thirty nobody had driven by.  At nine o’clock David drove to Albertson’s to grab some mid-morning sustenance. “There were only two cars on Main Street. One of them was mine,” he said. “And nobody in the store.”
By ten o’clock we had counted two customers and one looker.  More trains had passed on the track than cars on the street. The outlook was bleak. “Harlem feels abandoned,” I said. “There is a county fair both east and west of us. The whole town must be either in Havre or Dodson.”

At eleven o’clock, a woman stopped to browse. “Didn’t you hear about the funeral? A lot of people are out at the cemetery,” she said.

“Oh.” I sat a few minutes in abject discouragement. I looked over all our hard work. Then I got up and dragged those things I never wanted to see again across the sidewalk to the “free” pile. Vidya and I carefully boxed my collection of china cups and saucers and a few other things. David hauled them to the back storage room of the cabin to await the day I might have courage enough for another yard sale.

I made twenty-eight dollars and sixty cents.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
July 26, 2012

Sampling Local Culture—The Demolition Derby, Fair Food and Men in Hats

Sampling Local Culture—The Demolition Derby, Fair Food and Men in Hats
My friends from the Seattle area, David and Vidya, pulled into my driveway in the early afternoon on Saturday. The aroma of rhubarb pie I had baked especially for their arrival escaped from the oven. Once they unloaded their suitcases and the bag of books they brought for me, once we devoured half the pie, we settled in my living room. Vidya and I caught up on family doings. David browsed through the newspaper. With a yell, he interrupted us.  “Hey, look, it says here there’s a demolition derby at the Blaine County Fair in Chinook tonight at 6:00. Let’s go.”

“But you just drove nine hundred miles,” I said. Quite frankly, I couldn’t imagine David at a demolition derby. When I go to Seattle, they take me to the opera, to the symphony, or to a play. You know, something posh.  “Have you ever been to a demolition derby?”

“Oh sure, they’re great fun. Don’t you go?”

"A guy invited me to one in Malta back in about ’81. I was newly single and desperate for any social activity.  But on the way to town that evening I second guessed myself. What in the world was I thinking? I couldn’t imagine why I would want to watch cars smash together. But once it started, I picked up on the excitement and screamed my head off. So, Vidya, would you like to go?”
“Sure. Let’s do it,” said Vidya. “If we leave now, we have time to grab a bite to eat at the fair.”

Off we drove to Chinook. We ambled along the row of booths serving food. We passed up pronto pups, dismissed nachos glommed with glooey yellow stuff, and ended up at the VFW shed devouring the juiciest, the best cheeseburgers ever grilled. They came loaded with sauteed onions from a cast iron skillet. That’s what fair food is supposed to be—mouth watering, chin-dripping yummy.
We settled ourselves down in the open seating area of the bleachers to await the starting flag, blissfully cool under the clouded sky after the one-hundred degree heat of the day before.

Vidya is quite observant. After scanning the crowd for a few minutes, she said, “Look, do you notice that every male here above a certain age wears a hat. David, you are the only man in this entire crowd without a hat. Doesn’t that make you feel naked? You tenderfoot!  Sondra, do you think we should get him a cowboy hat?”
She giggled. “And you should have changed into jeans.”

“Wouldn’t make any difference. Not him wearing those sandals with white socks,” I said.  “He still wouldn’t fit in. Maybe we should get him boots too. What do you think about ostrich skin, maybe orange?”

We looked him over, sighed and shook our heads. “No, not a chance. It would never work.”

The show was about to start. But first two young girls came to the microphone to sing our National Anthem. Their young voices were so sweet. They earned an ovation from the crowd. Sweet. 
Then the first heat of cars chugged, limped and roared into the bermed arena. They reminded me of fighting cats, with torn skin, mangled ears, broken bones and missing teeth. They were showing their age, but still had plenty of fight and vinegar. They stalked one another, growling threats, snarled and spit, moved in, backed off, closed for the throat.

We each picked our favorite junker and placed our bets.  David backed the one with the most violent colors. Vidya chose the one that rumbled onto the field the most aggressively. I looked for one with the most steel, such as the station wagon. “That one is a real hog,” I said. However, if my favorite got stuck in the berm right out of “go”, I didn’t hesitate to switch. Never let it be said I backed a loser. 

We yelled, clapped, screamed, bet, won and lost.  We had such a good time that we decided we will go for cotton candy, hot dogs, and the rodeo at the Great Northern Fair this weekend. We’ll place bets with each other at the rodeo too. I intend to win big. I know how to pick a cowboy.
Sunday I found my favorite “beer and guns” camo cap and presented it to David. Then we drove to the Fort Peck Theatre for “Gypsy” and later walked over to the hotel for a sumptuous dinner. We wrapped up the night with a finale of the northern lights. From a demolition derby to a Broadway musical to the wonders of nature.  Now that’s Montana culture.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
July 19, 2012