On a recent camping trip up to Lake Superior, my brothers and I had a chance meeting with a distant relative. We had driven into Duluth, MN on our way up the shoreline to Two Harbors where my great grandpa had worked on the railroad, hauling iron ore from the mines out to the barges. As we came into town, my older brother, realizing the familiar location, suggested a minor detour from our course. There was a farm nearby, only about a mile up the road, where my grandfather had grown up. It was owned now by a distant relative of ours, who lived a few miles away and used the land to raise beef cattle. Eager to see a piece of our family history and relishing the opportunity to stretch our legs, we all agreed immediately.
The farm was like any you’ll find in the rural Midwest – flat, quiet and wonderfully simple. As we rolled up the curving driveway, we studied the old trucks stuck randomly among the tall grass, their windshields cracked or missing entirely and their paint as weather-beaten as the barn that stood at the end of the road. “That’s where grandpa grew up,” my oldest brother said as we stopped in front of a sagging house. The house had been abandoned for years, and it showed in every rotted board and cracked shingle and rusted hinge.
We got out of the car and walked up the dirt lane the rest of the way to the barn. The muffled moan of a tractor’s engine from beyond the barn told us someone was at work. As we came around the corner, we saw an old green tractor treading back and forth over the uneven ground. A round hay bale was stuck on its prongs, bouncing as the tractor shifted its metal arms and moved to place the bale in the barn. The man behind the wheel operated the controls with expert precision, skewering the bales from off his green pickup and trailer and stacking them into neat rows. We watched for several minutes.
When he saw us there, he stuck one final bale at the end of the row, then shut off the tractor and climbed down. He was an older man, hunched and wide. He took off his grimy ball cap as he came over, his head a mop of white hair. I didn’t know what I had expected from him as he approached, having four young strangers show up unexpectedly on his farmland, but the old man greeted us as if we were neighbors from down the road. He shook our hands warmly and was eager to hear our names, where we had come from and why we had come to see him.
We talked about the remote family connection we shared. The man said he knew of it, and we did our best to bridge our various relatives, puzzling through the link as if it were a fact we were trying to recall from grade school. In the end, we gave up, laughing, trying to figure it out.
The old man told us about his farm and the six beef cows he had raised and lost for pennies earlier in the year. The winter, he said, had been too hard to keep them, so they’d been sold for slaughter for what seemed like too little. It should have been a sad story, but he told it, winking and smiling like he was telling a joke. He would buy two steers with the money, he said, and start over.
After fifteen or twenty minutes, we let the man get back to his work. He said farewell to us and shook our hands, smiling and telling us he was pleased that we had come. We walked back to the car in good spirits, feeling a strange sense of accomplishment. As we got into the car and backed out of the driveway, the man was getting into his truck to go pick up another load of hay bales with his trailer. He waved once more before climbing in, and we waved back as we started back up the country road toward the lake.