An Amish man and his seven year old son ride north on Stone Street in an open black carriage wagon behind a magnificent black Arabian. I raise my hand in greeting and shout out “A lovely horse, that!” The Amish man grins broadly and shakes the reins slightly.
C and I are tired of hotel life and it's a needless expense. It's been six months since I came north to Minneapolis, into the hellish snow. The gig was horrible, replete with politics and wretched solutions and I was glad to see it end. To make our money last longer, we moved into one of her brother's apartments. It's a decidedly odd feeling to be freed from hotel life. After several years, a hotel room starts looking like a prison cell and they're all the same. For once, I'm not winnowing through my possessions as I've always done, getting everything into my truck.
We made two loads of my stuff, well three: C took the food in her car's trunk. Well, four. C and I stuffed one queen mattress into the back and tied another queen mattress to the roof of the poor little Rodeo and it flapped like an enormous flounder all the way from Eau Claire to Augusta. Then there was the air conditioner et. al., I suppose five. Add a few more for good measure, what the hell. We've been at it a while. Nobody could find the box springs for the queen mattress so we've put the two queen mattresses over each other and though this is a heathen and dissolute sleeping arrangement it's marvelous comfy and we'll get around to getting things right over time, just not yet.
Now we have an actual stove with an oven and baking sheets and a wrought iron baker's shelf rack for a bamboo steamer stack and Pfalzgraff china with proper big coffee cups and plates and new bed linens and a stack of new non-stick pans with glass lids and a place to put our Pat O'Brien's glasses from New Orleans and my bag of basmati rice and my jar of koshihikari sushi rice. Enough cabinets and counter space, oh the luxury of it! Three bedrooms for two people, granted they're small, but that means an office and a junk room and things on shelves and not in my spartan cases. Surprisingly, Internet service is superb: the fiber optic cable runs by this building and the central office is right down the street, though C has to stand by the window to get her Sprint cell phone to work.
The phrase “measuring for curtains” takes on its full metaphorical meaning. I am finally living somewhere again, with a real address. It won't be for too long, but it's our first place and we love it and I am trying to stay in the area while C finishes school.
This is a rich green landscape, east of Eau Claire. It's been a wet spring, with floods in the valleys. It’s late June and no mosquitoes, not yet anyway. The corn is about six inches high though not everyone's planted yet. Driving on Route K, I saw two Amish men raising cut hay into a farm wagon with an ingenious belt elevator, working furiously to beat an oncoming rainstorm, their draft horses marching into a turn at the end of a field guided by a boy of perhaps ten, wearing a straw hat, standing on the chariot perch, reins in hand.
All sorts of vehicles come down Stone Street. I've seen Amish two-wheel trap carriages, four wheel enclosed carriages, four wheel open wagons, four wheel all-terrain vehicles, semi-trucks headed to the lumber yard at the end of the street, tractors great and small, pickup trucks with vertical exhaust pipes (useful for driving half-submerged), rusty old beaters eaten up with salt cancer, tourists in Mercedes cars, a few mopeds. The street is marked for ATVs and snowmobiles.
Puts me in mind of that old joke about “what goes clop-clop-clop BANG BANG, cloppety-cloppety.... ? An Amish drive-by shooting.”
G the building handyman comes in on his bicycle and trailer, a converted baby puller. He's pulled off the child carrier and put a two foot square piece of plywood on it with a bungee cord to haul stuff around. A garrulous, slovenly old soul, he stands out front with me, wasting time, smoking his vile, cheap cigarillos, grinning through a half inch of beard and horrid teeth, telling me about doing a half-decade in prison for drug dealing and assorted madness. He hates the Amish. They think the rules don't apply to them. Why, he says a bunch of them were catching buckets full of the trout the state had stocked in the millpond at Dells' Mills. When someone said they would call the warden, they ran off and left their children behind. I gravely nodded quite sure the opposite was true. The Amish would never leave their children behind.
Here are also Mennonites, another people entirely from the Old Order Amish. Their women wear starched headdresses and drive cars. Yet both people are plain spoken, keeping their own counsel. They will deal with each other in business but will not willingly associate with each other. The divisions between them go back to the Anabaptist schism of 1693. Of the Mennonites I am still ignorant. I knew some Mennonite missionaries in Africa. The Old Order Amish do not evangelize.
C needs a table. I measured her, sitting in my office chair and determined what the ideal height would be. It ought to be seven feet long, three feet wide and 32 inches high. The Amish of this area are superb woodworkers. We asked around and were told to go to Herman Borntreger’s, an Amish lumberyard down by the creamery. Two people recommended him. So down we drove to his place on County Highway R, only to find it closed at the lunch hour. As we prepared to drive away, a young Amish man ran briskly across the highway and caught us. He opened the shop for us and showed us in.
A shadowy workshop, filled to the ceiling with logs and planks of red oak, cherry, walnut, hickory, poplar and even teak from Brazil. The workshop mostly made siding flooring and moldings, though they sold hardwood lumber. The Amish won’t connect to the electric grid so the whole place was powered by “Amish electricity”, free-standing motors driving belts, hydraulic and pneumatic tools. The young man clambered over the piles, bringing us treasures. Lit in a shaft of sunlight was a perfect piece of maple, as good a piece of wood as I have ever seen in my life, fit for a king’s rifle stock, its grain wandering in that peculiar pattern called the Bird’s Eye. Across the courtyard, two Amish girls ran barefoot across the yard, shrieking happily, a little black dog frolicked behind them.
We explained what we wanted: the young man gave us the business card of Levi and Lovena Hershberger, tables our specialty. E22680 County RR, Augusta WI 54722. No phone number. 8 to 5 Monday through Saturday, closed Sundays and holidays.
I have so much to learn. It is another culture entirely, this. The old familiar routine of asking for advice, always beginning with the first phrase anyone should learn in any language: I do not know anything.
I am the stranger. Oh I’m happy enough to be here. I can be a good stranger, wary and friendly in a small town. I have followed my heart to this place after many years on the road. I cannot say if this is where I’ll stay, but it is home for now. Home. What an odd sensation, to have a pair of keys instead of a piece of plastic.
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union
The photographs speak for themselves. Impossibly green, early summer in Wisconsin must be seen to be believed. Let me know if they're trouble at this size and I'll go in and resize.