Thursday, December 30, 2010

Home for the Holidays

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 2005. All rights reserved.

Home for the holidays.

That was always Grandma’s house as I was growing up. For nearly twenty years, no matter where we lived or what the circumstances, our family made a regular pilgrimage to Grandma Amelia’s home, a clean and spacious ranch-style structure on the rural edges of Billings, Montana.

Grandpa Ben lived there too, of course, but it was always “Grandma’s house.” She was the one who kept up the place and made arrangements, answering the phone and greeting us at the door with hugs and kisses.

Continued at...
Home for the Holidays

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Grandma's House

Monday, December 20, 2010

The World in Hattie's Jars

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1993. All rights reserved.

Hattie Gietzen holds a piece of the Holy Land in her hand. In the other palm she grips part of Hawaii. And on shelves and bureaus throughout her tidy Idaho home are portions of Belize, Death Valley, Alaska, Panama, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf of Mexico.

This 89-year-old woman has been collecting sand from all over the world for more than 20 years. The samples -- hundreds of them -- are gathered in small baby food jars marked with neat labels identifying the source of the sand.

"This one here is from the oldest pyramid in Egypt," she says, holding up a jar of white sand. "My niece brought me that one in 1983 after she went on a tour over there."

Continued at... The World in Hattie's Jars

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Out of the Past
Beach Walkway Path

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Sun Stands Still

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1997. All rights reserved.

This is as dark as it gets: fifteen hours of night, give or take a few minutes, at latitudes near the 45th parallel and nine hours of daylight, if you're lucky.

It is the week of the winter "solstice," a word derived from Latin meaning "sun stands still." For two or three days the sun seems to rise and set in the same places on the horizon and at the same times, as if uncertain whether to continue on its southward journey or to start creeping north again.

Ancient peoples once kindled huge bonfires on these nights, designed to urge the sun to burn warmer and longer. Among the Goths and Saxons, this tradition evolved into the Yule Girth Festival. Night fires still burn for some folks at solstice.

Imagine not knowing how the sun's decline was related to the tilt of the Earth in its orbit. Could the southerly retreat continue until the sun vanishes altogether, as it does during a full eclipse? Or could it get stuck here, in this track across the heavens, locking these lands into eternal winter?

Continued at... The Sun Stands Still

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Solstice Sunset atop Midnight Dome, Dawson City, Yukon, Canada

Friday, December 17, 2010

If It's Thursday Night, It's Bullseyes

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 2007. All rights reserved.

On Thursday nights in late winter the three taverns facing the railroad tracks in Shoshone, Idaho, are comfortably warm and inviting. Inside any of the establishments customers will be lined up at the bar and scattered among dimly lit tables. Reba will be wailing from the juke box and a crowd will have gathered around the electronic dart machine at one end of the room.

"Pock!" goes a soft-tipped dart into the board and instantly the machine tallies its score. Then another player toes the foul line.

This sparsely populated niche of southern Idaho is a long way from England, where throwing darts at a circular, numbered board is a passionate pasttime. But out of every eighty-five residents in the all-rural Lincoln County at least one is a competitive dart-thrower.

Continued at... If It's Thursday Night, It's Bullseyes

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Three Darts in the Bull's-Eye of a Dartboard

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

All Soul's March

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1994. All rights reserved.

In the crisp chill of October night costumed children toddle down darkened lanes, their tittering voices fending off silence.

They come dressed as ghouls and monsters, aliens of outer space and starship captains from the 25th century. Masked as heroes and demons, wild animals and crazed villains, our youth knocks upon the doors of strangers demanding treats.

In Ireland, once upon a time, it was the adults who dressed up as imps and fairies on All Hallow's Eve, painting their faces and shrouding their bodies.

This was the year's end, the close of summer, and the spirits of all who died of late were said to wander the night looking for some person or animal to inhabit on their way to the afterlife. It was possession the spirits were after and possession the Celtic people wanted to avoid.

Continued at... All Soul's March

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Out of the Past
Artwork: Halloween Boys

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Hippie Hoedads

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1997. All rights reserved.

Across the Northwest, from the Olympic Peninsula to the Bitteroots of Idaho, thousands of acres of young Douglas fir and white pine grow shoulder high on land clearcut a couple decades ago. These young forests are the legacy of men and women, the hippies of the 1960s, who fled "back to the land" during the early 1970s and found work as reforestation tree planters.

Like the Okies who headed west after the Dust Bowl years, or the settlers who crossed the continent along the Oregon Trail, the long-haired exodus north from California was fueled by idealistic dreams: unspoiled nature, cheap farmland, communal living, freedom from authority. They didn't anticipate depressed local economies, high unemployment, or antagonistic residents.

Continued at Hippie Hoedads
Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Artwork: Man Planting Pine Tree Seedlings by Hansel Miet

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Not Far Removed

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1998. All rights reserved.

Every day for three years I joined millions of people on a mass migration between home and work in the crowded urban corridor between the suburbs of New Jersey and the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan.

My wife was in graduate school at Rutgers University and I was working in an office halfway up the Empire State Building. My memories of those years are a succession of bus rides, train trips, taxi fares and street scenes; the smell of stale smoke, urine, fried meat and diesel exhaust is imprinted in every reflection.

Between the tunnels that fed us into the thick of midtown and the snarl of traffic circles, train stations and Turnpike toll booths that marked a steady succession of townships and cities, was a shock of open space: marshes, weeds, boggy dumps, mud flats, tall grasses and protruding boulders.

Like most other commuters, I presume, I looked out the window and thought "wasteland." Undoubtedly despoiled with toxins and polluted beyond repair, it was obviously a place without worth or it would have long since been developed.

Almost a dozen years later, I realized I missed something. New Jersey nature writer John Quinn produced a convincing study of the Hackensack Meadowlands showing that despite its poor reputation, the area supports a vital ecosystem of birds and fishes and lush plant life far more extensive than anyone would imagine.

Ducks of many species migrate through the Meadowlands; some even reside there. Striped bass are common in these waters, though folks are warned against catching them for the frying pan. Several species of frogs survive in the brackish waters and peregrine falcons have been nesting on factory smokestacks.

Titled "Fields of Sun and Grass," Quinn's skteches and observations of the Meadowlands reveal a rural place not far removed from the urban congestion of Times Square.

At one point, he climbs a graffiti-decorated rocky outcrop called Snake Hill that overlooks forests of chimneys and standpipes, marshy flatlands, and a convoluted tangle of roadways branching off the steady stream of the New Jersey Turnpike that fades into a horizon of hazy buildings.

"Sitting there in the November sun, assailed by the noise of a hundred thousand machines, the collective voices of perhaps a million people and a half a billion birds, I found my convictions as a naturalist challenged by the overwhelming visual and auditory assault," Quinn reports.

"I saw and heard this exultation not as a craven offense against nature but rather as a spectacular confirmation of it."

The Meadowlands is a toxic place, defiled by some of the worst byproducts of 20th century society, and yet it lives and thrives and, in some places, is being restored. It demonstrates how nature incorporates the works of man, however complex and intrusive, and pursues its own agenda.

I once believed that what we call "rural" and what we know as "urban" could be clearly separated. Now I'm not so certain. Even small towns are sporting espresso bars these days and the most remote ranch may be linked via the Internet to daily trading on Wall Street.

Meanwhile, there are crops being grown on rooftops in every major city and more urban dwellers are taking an interest in being frugal and self-reliant. And, as Quinn demonstrates, there remain pockets of open space near the most densely populated cities where a person can stretch out and, for a few moments at least, feel what it's like to be in the country.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Not Far Removed
Artwork: The Marshes of the Meadowlands Glitter with Sunlight
Fields of Sun and Grass

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Bite Most Deadly

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1996. All rights reserved.

Some folks are afraid of spiders, others snakes. Lightning puts the fear of God in many of us, and so do earthquakes, tornadoes and dark moonless nights. Living in the country presents many special worries, like the threat of wildfire or the potential for flash floods. More cars collide with wild animals on rural roads than city lanes and the chances of eating a poisonous mushroom or contracting the deadly hantavirus are much greater off the beaten path. But there is no threat so terrifying in rural places, or as fatally serious as rabies.

Growing up, I learned to keep a wary eye on grape arbors and tall, dark hedges of lilacs lest some crazed bat should emerge, grab hold of my hair, bite my scalp and infect me with rabies. Older cousins planted a terror of rabies in my pre school mind with accounts of the terrible vaccination shots in the belly that bat bite victims had to endure and how, more often than not, the bitten person went crazy and was committed to an asylum, ranting and raving and foaming at the mouth.

Like most horror stories, and like that nightmarish movie Cujo, there is a kernel of truth at the center of the exaggeration.

Bats are a major carrier of the rabies virus along with skunks, raccoons, squirrels and dogs. Treatment of an infected person does involve a series of shots (rabies immune globulin and human diploid cell rabies vaccine) that must begin immediately after infection. But the shots are now given in the arm, not the belly, and amount to six shots over 28 days. If administered promptly, the vaccine is almost always effective. Untreated victims, or those who get their shots too late, become irritable and feverish, they experience double vision and vomitting. Eventually they'll probably succumb to spasms, convulsions, delirium and death.

Only one person has survived the rabies virus without receiving a preventative vaccine -- a 15-year-old girl bitten by a rabid bat she picked up outside her church in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. According to a report in Scientific American, she didn't display signs of rabies until three weeks later, when it was too late for the antirabies vaccine.

"Instead of giving her up for dead, the doctors decided to 'shut the brain down and wait for the cavalry to come' by inducing a coma to give her own immune system time to build up antibodies against the virus," the report stated. Rodney Willoughby, an infectious disease specialist at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, devised the treatment credited with saving the girl, which has since become known as "the Milwaukee protocol."

Since 1980, there have been 36 human deaths from rabies in the U.S., but in 12 of those cases the infection occurred outside the U.S. More than half of the victims were infected by the kind of rabies associated with bats, but only one had actually been bitten by a bat.

The rabies disease, known as hydrophobia, is transmitted through the saliva of a warm blooded or fur bearing mammal, including man. You do not have to be bitten to get rabies. Most often, it infects people who handle wild animals or have pets that come in contact with wild animals. The virus can travel from a dog's saliva into the human bloodstream through an opening as small as a hangnail or the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose or mouth.

In the 1950s, rabies was infecting U.S. dogs in nearly epidemic proportions. A household pet could be carrying rabies for weeks or months without showing symptoms? Widespread pet vaccinations and licensing helped curb the number of infections. There were 6,949 confirmed rabies cases in dogs in 1947; there were 111 in 1996.

Lately, though, rabies is spreading again, this time in skunks and raccoons. Some states have controlled the advance by feeding their wildlife a bait loaded with a rabies vaccine; others have found this technique too expensive. The best ways to avoid rabies are pretty simple:

Vaccinate the pets. Stay away from wild animals. Deter wild animals away from the house and pets as much as possible. Avoid and report animals acting strangely. Keep pets indoors at night. If bitten by an animal, capture it if possible. Wash the bite with soap and water for 15 minutes. Go immediately to a doctor or hospital. Only by monitoring or dissecting the animal culprit can health officials determine whether it has rabies. And only by starting the series of vaccination shots -- a five-shot series of minute amounts of the dead rabies virus and a shot of immunoglobulin -- immediately can a person be assured of surviving the encounter.

I don't fear bats like I once did, and I'm relieved to know the belly shots are a thing of the past, but I still move quickly through the grape arbor and try to keep my hair under a hat.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
A Bite Most Deadly

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Flavor of the Basque

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1996. All rights reserved.

There is a story told by Idaho's Basque sheepherders about Basa Faun, a gigantic hairy ogre that resides in mountain caves and feeds on human flesh. A handful of salt in one's pocket will keep the beast away, they say, but one poor shepherd was careless and got caught unawares.

Basa Faun grabbed the trembling shepherd and said, "If you state three irrefutable facts I shall not feast on your flesh today."

The shepherd thought a moment, then told Basa Faun, "Some say that when the moon is full, night is as clear as day. That's not true.

"Some say corn bread is as good as wheat bread. But that's not true.

"I say, had I known you were going to be here I wouldn't have come. And that's true!"

Basa Faun kept his word and spared the shepherd, who never again left his sheepherder's wagon without salt in his pocket.

Idaho author Darcy Williamson included this story in her collection of recipes and stories, "Basque Cooking and Lore" (Caxton Press). A veteran cook with a half dozen cookbooks to her credit, she tested and refined all 107 recipes included in the Basque cookbook.

The meals prepared and the tall tales told by Basques in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon are not the same as those in Europe, Williamson explained. The environment of the Rockies, its food sources, and the experiences of Basque immigrants and their children in this country has changed the native culture. "Their recipes are founded on traditional dishes, but they are also uniquely different," Williamson noted.

Chukar and steelhead, for instance, are not found in the Basque homeland. But in the Rockies Basque-style chukar roasted with strips of bacon and garnished with grape leaves is based on old country poultry menus, and steelhead baked with onions and peppers is influenced by traditional seafood cuisine.

Dishes featured in the book include chick-pea and fresh mint soup, berza (cabbage with short ribs), blood sausages, chorizos, chimbos (small game birds with garlic and parsley sauce), boletus custard and tongue with wild mushroom sauce.

Though she is not Basque herself, Williamson grew up among Basques in McCall and was interested in the people and their culture. "Most of my recipes came from men," Williamson pointed out. "In the old country the men prided themselves on their culinary skills."

The Basque men were also more eager to share stories than were the women Williamson met. One acquaintance led to another as the author traveled throughout Oregon, Idaho and Nevada, and she kept a growing file of stories and recipes stashed away until she was ready to write her book.

One story she heard in Nevada told of a young man named Jose who immigrated from the Euzkadi region of northern Spain in the fall of 1922. A strict immigration quota had been set in 1921, but because of a labor shortage on sheep ranches Idaho and Nevada congressmen got special legislation approved making visas available to sheepherders.

Jose and Alejo, another Basque fresh from the Old Country, were instructed to trail a band of 750 sheep over a mountain range to winter pasture. On the second day of their journey they woke to find their camp blanketed with snow and not a sheep in sight.

"Where are the sheep?" shouted Jose.

"You tell me! You're the sheepherder!" Alejo shouted back.

"Not I," said Jose. "I'm a fisherman."

"And I am an innkeeper," Alejo said.
After staring at each other in disbelief, the pair went off in search of the missing flock, which they found winding its way down the mountain towards winter pasture.

The Basque people, according to Williamson, are generally down-to-earth and conservative. Like Jose and Alejo, their interests and occupations extended far beyond sheepherding. Basque cookery, like the people, is hearty, straightforward and moderately spiced.

Williamson's personal favorite among the dishes profiled in "Basque Cooking and Lore" is Basque-style paella. The paella is made with baked chicken, shrimp, clams, and green olives. These ingredients are cooked in a chicken broth with garlic, onion, green peppers, tomatoes and rice, and seasoned with coriander, salt, pepper and a sprinkle of sherry.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Real Cowboy Hats

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1995. All rights reserved.

Real cowboy hats don't have feather bands, nor do they come in mink fur or shades of mauve. The real thing, like the Stetsons and Resistols of old, is 100 percent fur felt. It's sturdy enough to weather gully-washers and to withstand horse's hooves, and it comes only in basic colors: good-guy white, bad-guy black and wrangler tan.

It used to be, a hundred or so years ago, you could tell where a cowpoke hailed from by the style of his hat. High Plains horsemen wore hats with wide brims to shade them from the glaring sun. Backcountry packers and riders in wooded areas favored hats that were narrower, to avoid tree limbs, and more bowed, to keep rain off their necks.

Nowadays mass production of cowboy hats has messed things up, but there are still some distinctions among real-life working cowboys. Your Texas cattleman, for instance, still wears a conservative rancher-style hat with a crease down the center of a six-inch crown and a dent along each side.

Most Nevada buckaroos, on the other hand, seek out the scruffiest, most old-fashioned hat imaginable and wear it with great pride.

And only bankers and other city dudes wear those black, short-brimmed bowlers.

The earliest cowboy hats were self-made fashion statements the likes of which won't be found in any store. Hat-makers started off by digging a hole in the ground the size of a man's head. Then a piece of wet rawhide was stretched over the hole and nailed down.

Into the middle of the wet skin the cowboy would stuff several handfuls of grass and shape the crown from the inside with his fingers. The brim was tamped down and cut to whatever width the maker desired.

Once the rawhide dried, it was smoked and heated over a campfire for waterproofing.

Such hats, which date back to the early 1800s, did not last long. Their brims wore like corrugated cardboard, according to historical accounts, and broke apart in chunks after a few months.

Not many cowboys make their own hats these days unless they are professional haber-dashers like Tom Hirt in Colorado. Hirt uses early-century techniques to custom-craft hats from a dense Beaver fut felt. He cuts and shapes the hat by hand, but instead of using a hole in the ground he forms the crown using antique wooden blocks, or "lasts," to get the head shape he wants.

Hirt then works the brim on a heat press to create the sloping dip of a Wyoming cowhand's hat or the "pencil-roll" lip of a riverboat gambler's. After sanding and oiling the fabric to a smooth finish, he ties a simple leather cord or a colored ribbon around the brim.

No feathers, no buckles, no flags on these hats. Real cowboys, their character molded by austere landscapes and a frugal lifestyle, disdain such adornments. The only concession to vanity may be found in gold lettering along the two-inch-wide leather sweatband inside the crown: the cowboy's name.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Real Cowboy Hats

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 2007. All rights reserved.

In a quarter century of driving I figure I've put more than a million miles on various cars and trucks, most of it on rural two-lanes, gravel drives and dirt roads. This includes several cross-country migrations through 36 states and one Canadian province, across prairies, along riverbanks and up over mountain passes.

In all this time, across all those miles, I have not run over a single skunk (knock on wood) or collided with a big game animal (knock on wood twice). Nor has my driving claimed the life of any dogs, cats, rabbits, snakes or tortoises. My only roadkills have been a few birds, mice and a mess of frogs that covered the road in a Kansas thunderstorm one August night.

I mention this not to boast, but to explain why I don't understand roadkills. Drive a few miles some morning along almost any state highway, especially those that cross some rural area, and you will likely find carnage littering the roadway.

How does this happen? Is there so much traffic on these roads that the law of averages catches up with so many cats? Or are there really folks out there who deliberately try to run over skunks so their car can wear the animal's lovely fragrance for the next six weeks?

Is it truckers making late-night runs in loaded-down rigs that can't stop or maneuver quickly that make most roadkills? Or are equal numbers of non-professional drivers out there clipping deer and dogs and doves as they speed along with a cellular phone in one ear?

Just as mysterious to me is what becomes of all those roadkills. By mid-afternoon, I've noticed, most of the morning's carnage has vanished. Gobbled up by scavengers? Scooped up by litter patrols? Broiled away to nothing in the hot sun? I'm not sure.

A small and rather obscene literary tradition has emerged to explain roadkills. There's the comic field guide by Roger M. Knutson, "Flattened Fauna" for naturalists who want to identify roadkills and the culinary classic, "Road Kill Cookbook" by B.R. "Buck" Peterson that helps explain disappearing roadkills.

Most astonishing is John McPhee's journalistic "Travels in Georgia" from his 1976 anthology "Pieces of the Frame," in which he describes a couple of wildlife enthusiasts who pull off the road whenever they see a D.O.R. (dead on the road) and often carry roadkill home with them.

Carol (this is a real person) talks to McPhee as she skins a roadkill squirrel:

"I lived on squirrel last winter. Every time you'd come to a turn in the road, there was another squirrel. I stopped buying meat."

Carol holds up the skinned squirrel.

"Isn't he in perfect shape? He was hardly touched. You really lose your orientation when you start to skin an animal that's been run over by a Mack truck. People don't make sense. They hunt squirrels, but they wouldn't consider eating a squirrel killed on the road."

She sniffs at the carcass.

"M-m-m-m... It has a wild odor. You know it's not cow. The first time I had bear, people said, 'Cut the fat off. That's where the bad taste is.' I did, and the bear tasted just like cow. The next bear, I left the fat on. How do you like your squirrel cooked? Rare or well-done?"

What becomes of roadkills? Maybe I don't want to know.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Artwork: The Bloodied Roadkill of a Male Koala Alongside a Country Road, Australia

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Scanning for News

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1996. All rights reserved.

Out here we pretty much ignore the TV weather forecasts. They aren't accurate more than half the time, so we'd do as well flipping a coin.

It's not that meteorologists in these parts are poorly trained or that our weather is particularly tricky. They're just demographically handicapped. They forecast weather for their primary viewing audience, the "big city," which is 25 miles away and 600 feet lower.

Folks like us in outlying rural areas are on our own, which is how we like it most of the time.

We don't follow the "news" much, either. It's all about city life, mostly, and one ghastly murder after another. There's not enough minutes on the TV news to tell us about all the shootings and robberies and child abuse going on. There's not enough pages in the newspaper.

No wonder the media never gets around to reporting on how our neighbor's breast cancer miraculously went into remission or how the Kiwanis constructed a band shell for the park. Some small towns have a weekly newspaper that prints news of kids that aren't in trouble and local governments that aren't corrupt, but they don't sell many copies.

Around here, when folks want "up-to-the-minute" news they don't subscribe to CNN, they buy a scanner. For less than the cost of a couple months of cable TV, a person can buy an emergency frequency scanner that tunes into the radio calls of police, firefighters and ambulance crews. The guy who runs the local gas station has one, and so do several neighbors.

If we need to check on winter road conditions we huddle around the scanner down at the Co-op and listen to the snowplow drivers chatter at each other. If there's an accident somewhere, we'll hear about it on the scanner long before it's news.

Some folks, like the neighbors we play cards with, leave their scanners on night and day. Over pinochle on a Friday night we listened as a crime wave swept through our town.

First, the local police stopped a couple cars for speeding -- out-of-staters, of course -- and checked on a barking dog down by the gravel pit. We all knew which dog they were talking about.

Later, there was a call about a suspicious person behind the bar and the Sheriff went to investigate. After a few moments he called for a backup. The "suspicious person" he went looking for was nowhere to be found, but a young kid he questioned outside the bar had gotten mad and was using "loud profanities," the Sheriff said. The 16-year-old boy was arrested.

After that, the night was quiet until the State Police were contacted by a woman who had been traveling northbound on the state highway when a dark-colored van passed her recklessly. As the van passed, a passenger yelled at the woman and made an obscene gesture. A patrolman said he would investigate.

As we folded our last hand, we reflected on how fortunate we were to live where the most serious crimes of that particular night were bad manners.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Scanning for News
Artwork: A Twilight View of a Small Town Street Decorated for Christmas

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Barn Dance

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1994. All rights reserved.

A mile or so from the nearest paved road, the graveled two-lane leading to the Spanbauer Ranch dead-ends in front of a red hip-roof barn. Surrounded by 1,400 acres of wheat and potatoes, the barn doors open to the sweet smell of fresh-cut grain.

Every Saturday night folks come from all directions, park outside this barn and climb a flight of stairs to the loft. There they find a 900-square-foot hardwood dance floor surrounded by chairs and tables and fronted by a four-man country swing band. Several couples will be two-stepping to a familiar Hank Williams tune.

John Spanbauer, Sr., the 76-year-old namesake of the farm, collects $5 per person and plenty of conversation at the loft door. When a newcomer holds out his hand and asks, "Don't you stamp us?"

Spanbauer replies, "No, we're kind of relaxed here."

In their homespun fashion, John and Marie Spanbauer have been holding Saturday night barn dances every week for the past five years. Only once has the barn been quiet on a Saturday, and that was on account of exceptionally heavy snow.

Barn dances of one sort or another have been held in rural America ever since New England settlers built their first barns over 200 years ago.

But the modern-day version of these social events, led by a toe-tappin' fiddler or a Western swing band, dates back to the 1920s.

Radio stations in Texas and Georgia were among the first to broadcast shows they called "barn dances," but two big stations -- WLS in Chicago and WSM in Nashville -- made the country music sound famous. The "Barn Dance" on WSM eventually became the Grand Ole Opry.

Beginning during the depths of the Depression and continuing until the late 1950s, barn dances spread all across the nation. In the West, barn dancers favored up-tempo swing music played by groups like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys while those in the East preferred the traditional country songs of the Carter Family. Both kinds of dances were major social events until rock-and-roll stole away their crowds.

Only a few barn dances remain, but those that have been the most successful -- like the Spanbauer Ranch dances -- are throwbacks to that early era when swing was king.

"We enjoy these dances a lot," says Dusty Sheets, lead guitarist for The Nomads, the band that has been playing at the Spanbauer Barn for the last four years.

Ron Stockham, the lead singer for The Nomads, goads the crowd between numbers. There's a lot of familiar faces on the dance floor and he addresses them by name, comments on their dancing, and makes mildly off-color jokes.

"Anybody have a birthday they want to announce?" he asks. "Or an anniversary? Tell us. We'll celebrate anything."

From 8 p.m. until close to midnight The Nomads produce a steady stream of toe-tapping tunes. The dancers, ranging from the mid-20s to late 80s in age, fill the floor with every number. Some barely shuffle to the beat while others twirl their partners.

When the band takes a break, Marie Spanbauer takes a seat on the bench in front of an old upright piano perched next to the bandstand. She pounds out old-time waltzes while everyone dances and sings along.

"She learned to play by ear when she was a little girl. She never learned to read a note," says her husband with obvious pride as he scatters a little cornmeal across the dance floor.

"We love it here," says Carl Kerner, who has been coming to the dances with his wife Dorothy for the past four years. "We've only missed about four weeks since we started coming. The floor is good and the band is good."

The Kerners remember when this kind of music was performed all across southern Idaho. They followed groups like Russ Pike and the Prairie Knights to dance halls in towns like Hagerman, Burley, Twin Falls, and Glenns Ferry.

"We miss those days," says Dorothy Kerner. "There aren't many places like this any more."

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Barn Dance
Artwork: Renfro Valley Barn Dance

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Ground Truthing Crop Circles

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 2002. All rights reserved.

From up above, the truth can seem so obvious. Satellite photographs of Earth taken from space show us where storm systems are located and in what direction they are headed. These images can tell us how thick the clouds are, their temperature and movements, and suggest a likelihood of precipitation.

But an image is not reality. Those white shapes on the satellite image could be snow, ice, fog or maybe just clouds. Down on the surface there could be a blizzard, a gentle rain or overcast skies.

The process of verifying what a satellite or remote sensing image really represents is called "ground truthing." It takes ground truthing -- going to an area to take field measurments or communicating with someone on location -- to find out what's really happening on the surface.

Ground truthing is essential to determining the accuracy of overhead imagery of all kinds, from weather satellites to remote-sensing crop data to military intelligence. Without it, meteorologists will err, crop inputs will be misapplied and missiles will fall on unintended targets.

From up above, the wheat and barley fields of southern England appear to have been visited by extraterrestials. Flying overhead, you can spot dozens of geometric shapes, lines and pictograms carved out of the croplands below -- designs that surely must have been made from the air, where the artist could see what he was doing.

These "crop circles," which began appearing each summer in the 1970s, have become a tourist attraction in England, as thousands of people flock to the fields to gawk and ponder their significance.

Are they the work of aliens from outer space? Pranksters? Unusual microbursts of wind? Or is there something supernatural going on in the land of Merlin and Stonehenge?

Down on the surface, there are explanations aplenty. One group of landscape artists, calling itself The Circlemakers, claims responsibility for many of England's "crop formations." They sneak off into fields at night with schematics in hand, carefully flattening crops (bending but not breaking stalks) into elaborate designs. They've even begun taking consignments for commercial projects.

Like corn mazes in America, crop circles in England provide farmers who have them a supplemental source of income.

There are others taking the crop circle phenomenon more seriously, though, accusing The Circlemakers and others of being mere graffiti artists and imitating the work of aliens or something supernatural. Cerealogists, those who study crop circles as a science, have carefully scoured crop formations and found stunted seed-heads, enlarged and bent nodes, deformed and stunted seeds, and growth reduction in seedlings within their boundaries.

According to the Des Moines Register, Michigan biophysicist William C. Levengood has found tiny, nearly pure spheres of iron in the soil where crop circles occur. He theorizes that a magnetic field draws particles in, heats them to a molten state and disperses them in a rotating fashion inside the crop formation.

Although they look stunningly supernatural from the air and seem impossible to create from the ground where an overhead perspective is not available, crop circles are well within the creative limits of a prankish undergraduate student.

Writing in Scientific American, Matt Ridley describes how he created a crop circle with his brother-in-law late one August night a few years ago:

"I stepped into a field of nearly ripe wheat in northern England, anchored a rope into the ground with a spike and began walking in a circle with the rope held near the ground. It did not work very well: the rope rode up over the plants. But with a bit of help from our feet to hold down the rope, we soon had a respectable circle of flattened wheat.

"Two days later there was an excited call to the authorities from the local farmer. I had fooled my first victim."

The same methods were used to create the circles in the motion picture Signs on 200 acres of rented farmland in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the movie, actor Mel Gibson portrays a farmer who finds an elaborate crop formation in his field.

Ridley admits to making two more crop circles using improved techniques -- a garden roller filled with water and planks suspended from two ropes.

"Getting into the field without leaving traces is a lot easier than is usually claimed. In dry weather, and if you step carefully, you can leave no footprints or tracks at all... One group of circle makers uses two tall bar stools, jumping from one to another."

Like the clouds on satellite imagery, the shapes above do not reflect the truth below. Crop circles are not everywhere the same -- the ones found in America, New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere obviously have different origins. Their truth is not universal, but personal and allegoric, and rarely grounded in reality.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Ground Truthing Crop Circles
Artwork: Aerial View of Crop Circles in a Wheat Field

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Harvest Song

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1997. All rights reserved.

Summer's back is broken. The hot, dry winds of August gave way this week to steady rain. We haven't had a soaking like this since June, or May.

There will be more hot days this year, without doubt, but in these mountain valleys October is already in sight, and November too. Spring is often a latecomer, but autumn is ever anxious, showing up at the door weeks before he's due.

I see autumn in the meadows and pastures, where ryegrasses and wild wheat have reached maturity, their tops all yellow and bent over with the burden of seed. The goldenrod is blooming now, taking the place of monkeyflower and penstemon.

In our garden, a second crop of carrots are showing their orange roots above the dark earth.

We've seen the last of the raspberries for this year, I'm afraid, but the snow peas are still producing. Yesterday I dug up an armload of potatoes.

The urgency of spring sprouting and the rush of summer growth has given way to a time of laid-back fulfillment. Eggs have hatched and fledglings are now on the wing. Seeds and fruits and nuts and pods are well on their way to completion. Summer is ripe and ready for harvest.

"Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each... Grow green with spring, yellow and ripe with autumn."

Such was the sage advice of Henry David Thoreau written one day in late August. One hundred thirty-nine years later I find common ground in the truths he tilled. It is not just the crops in the field we gather this time of year, but those in our souls as well.

People talk about the autumn and winter years of life as if spring were but a distant memory. This belies the flush of hope that surges through the oldest veins when crocuses first blossom. And it negates the sense of completeness even the youngest farmer feels at harvest time.

Each year's cycle is a condensed version of a lifespan. One year lived fully can survive eternity.

And so I try to remain awake to the season, whatever mood it's in. At noonday I drink deeply from the winey scent of fermenting fallen apples and stand stock-still at sunset facing west, taking in the red-orange afterglow.

Swathers mow through barley fields out on the flats just as sheep bands come down from the high country to be sheared. While ranchers stack hay their dairy farming neighbors are storing up silage. And in the same moment that corn is being shucked some watermelon down valley is being severed from its vine.

Every harvest is the same, whether of berries or beans or spuds -- a gathering in, a stocking up, a payoff. Youthful dreams of spring mature through summer in order that we can glean them in the cool, contemplative autumn air.

Come winter I will hold up this apple harvested from my tree and see the first green buds of April, smell the sweet fragrance of June, and feel the muscles in my shoulders stretching for it on some outlying branch.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Harvest Song
Artwork: The Harvest by Vincent Van Gogh

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Some Summer Days

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1997. All rights reserved.

There are days in summer that are dry as a bone and blistering hot. There are days when the sun burns and the wind peels and lightning starts wildfires that race out of control. Summer skies can be brown with soot and thick with allergens, or they can be broiling with a violence that strips and drowns and washes away.

But there are other summer days, such as today, that open like the bloom of a colorful flower. Scented with the sweet fragrance of fresh-cut alfalfa, they arrive with a kiss of dew and the enveloping warmth of dawn.

There are summer days sweet as a crisp apple that beckon bite after bite down to a core of contentment. Their still mornings lie across the countryside like a Maxfield Parrish painting, lustrous and idyllic.

These are lush days of growth in the fields and pastures, when buyers and sellers feel generous and fortunate, and repairs are made with patience. It feels good to be out-of-doors, whatever the chore.

Some summer days are richly textured with friends and family, full of picnics and swimming holes and grassy lawns. It is a time of fresh-cut flowers, home runs, fishing poles, bicycle rides, lawn mowers, and porch swings. Every meal becomes an occasion for applauding the local produce: buttercrunch lettuce, sweet corn, new potatoes, vine-ripened tomatoes, crisp carrots.

There are summer days when folks turn off the air-conditioning, roll down their windows, and hang an arm out the door as they drive. There is much waving and chatting and fellow-feeling all about.

Some summer days seem more colorful than others, when the marigolds and bachelor buttons and Queen Anne's lace and black-eyed Susans stand up taller, and roses are their most vibrant in the calm, warm air.

Butterflies emerge, canary finches dart through the trees, and hummingbirds lick at the trumpet vines.

The daylight concludes with a lingering wash of reds and purples along the western horizon that reflects on the sides of mountains, buildings and people's faces. Everything basks in a ruddy glow for several moments.

And then some summer days end with a clear view of heaven. On such calm nights the Milky Way spreads like a flag across the middle of the sky, billowing slightly in some interstellar breeze. Stars and planets wink at each other across the depths of space. Frogs and crickets and coyotes join in a nocturnal chorus with the swish-swish-swish of sprinklers on the fields and the distant sounds of late-night travelers.

Rural Delivery
Some Summer Days
Michael Hofferber
Artwork: A Summer's Day by Alfred Sisley

Saturday, August 14, 2010


"To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common--this is my symphony."
~ William Henry Channing, 1810 - 1884

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ascent of Man

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 2006. All rights reserved.

However old I age or whatever career goals I pursue, it seems, I still remain a little boy watching for Daddy to come home.

My father was a working man of the 1960s, responsible for the gross household income, and for him that meant days and weeks on the road selling heating and air conditioning equipment. His father and his father's father were raised on family farms and orchards where the day's work ended at a communal dinner table. He was the first father in his line to take his dinners alone at motel restaurants in far-off cities while his family ate at home before his empty chair.

No one told us this was unusual. No one warned us how we would miss him then, and for years and years to come.

Mom was essential to my physical well-being, fixing meals and attending wounds, but Dad's attention had a direct line to my soul. Mom's praise and encouragement were important, but Dad's approval was a gift of grace.

I see this same hunger for acceptance in my own son, now just a toddler with a handful of words and a fragile understanding of the world. I see him glancing at me from his play, gauging my moods and opinions.

He follows my movements. He memorizes my words and intonations. He smiles when I smile, frowns when I frown, and takes an interest in whatever I do with my hands. It is still a shock to see my thoughts and actions reflected in a one-year-old's behavior.

There are tougher jobs than parenting. Longshoremen lift far heavier weights and ocean-going fishermen endure much greater discomfort. City police on night patrol face more stress and emergency medical teams have to deal with more terrible traumas. But no man's job is more dangerous to him on a personal level than fatherhood. No other occupation threatens as much heartbreak or deeper wounds. The loss of no other livelihood can cost a man not only his life, but his place in eternity.

For my little boy's well-being, I realized early on, there is little I would not suffer. His hurts pain me ten times more than my own. His laughter makes me happier than my own.

If I could spare my son the bumps and bruises and senseless injustices of life then I could save myself the grief of having to see his disillusion. If his spirit survives intact then my heart can go on unbroken.

When I call him to my arms or cheer his first steps I hear the voice of my father and my father's father. In his eyes I catch a glimpse of myself looking back at Dad. In his fingers I feel tomorrow grasping at the present.

My immortality breathes inside that little chest. The only afterlife I can be sure of watches for my return. Coming home, I bring back all the fathers before me.

Ascent of Man
Michael Hofferber
Photo: Time by Jean Monti

Thursday, June 10, 2010

My Own Stories

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1996. All rights reserved.

My little boy stops me in the middle of a story I am reading.

"I don't want this story; I want your story," he says.

"My story?" I ask.

"About when you were a little boy."

I pause, trying to figure out where this is coming from.

"You were once a little boy, weren't you?"

"Yes, I was a little boy a long time ago."

"Well, what happened?" he demands."

"Give me a moment. Let me think." I say, struggling to peel away the layers of time that have grown over those childhood memories. Where was I at his age? What was I doing? What did I think about?

I remember a steel bucket so large I couldn't get my hands all the way around. And I remember this big tank of water deeper than I was tall. For some reason, I was determined to fill that bucket and dipped it into the tank. As the water poured inside, the pail grew heavier. Standing on the tips of my toes, I held on tightly with both hands but the pail pulled harder and harder. I felt my feet leave the ground and the lip of the water tank slipping down my chest.

Just as I was about to topple into the tank, two strong arms lifted me and my bucket up in the air. Safely on the ground, I look up at my tall, weathered grandfather. He gave me no scolding and no shame, just a slight smile. He knew I'd learned my lesson.

"That's a good story. Tell me another one."

We lived on a small farm with a menagerie of animals. We had ducks and chickens and horses and even a pair of squirrel monkeys for a time. One winter, as I remember, it was a rabbit that I was most fond of, and when he turned up missing from his pen I was in tears. The neighbor dogs were sure to kill him, if they hadn't already.

My father and a hired hand went out searching for that rabbit and caught sight of gray fur bounding for one of the outbuildings. Like two Labradors, they ran from one side of the building to the other, shouting and clapping their hands. While my father slithered into the crawl space after the rabbit, the help stood guard with a blanket to toss onto the fugitive.

That was about when I found my rabbit in my room, where I had stolen him away the afternoon before, determined that he and I should sleep together. By morning, I had forgotten he was there. And as I held him in my arms, stroking his gray fur, I watched the two men outside and wondered what they had caught.

My boy is quiet now, his breathing soft and steady. I was going to tell him about the time at school when the girls captured me, tied me to a basketball pole with their jump ropes, and kissed me. Or the time I was lost in the woods. Or how my best friend and I played cowboys and Indians.

He's asleep and I am still a little boy. It's been so long since I've visited these memories, all but forgotten I'm afraid. Were it not for this child, I might never have found them again.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Against All Odds

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1992. All rights reserved.

Folks went a little berzerk in Florida last year when the state's lottery jackpot climbed to $94 million. One fellow, nicknamed "The Phantom," bought 80,000 tickets at a bar called Smitty's Place in Jacksonville and still didn't hold a winning ticket when numbers were drawn. Those who did win are collecting about $15 million paid out over the next 20 years.

Lottery officials just love those big jackpots. The bigger the prize the more participants and the more dollars for state budgets, and yet the payoff to individual winners stays about the same. This is because the likelihood of multiple winners rises with each ticket sold and the prize money in the big pots usually gets split two, three or six ways, as was the case in Florida.

The odds of selecting all the numbers in a Pick 6 type game, of course, are awfully slim: 7 million to 1 at best.

Compare the odds of being struck by lightning (9,100 to 1) or dying in a plane crash (4.6 million to 1). It would be much easier to draw an
opening hand royal flush in poker (649,739 to 1) or receive a fatal dose of natural radiation (50,000 to 1).

Snow in July would be a better bet. A bumper crop of winter wheat would be a lot more likely.

Everyone has a system for improving their lottery chances. Mine is to play the birthdates and ages of family members. Those numbers, I figure, will be drawn at least once in the next 250,000 years. Hopefully, I won't forget to buy a ticket that week.

Another tip I've heard is to pick "unusual" numbers that someone else is unlikely to select. That way, if you win you won't have to share the jackpot like those six unfortunate people in Florida. But which numbers are unusual? 1 through 6? 49 through 54? Oops! Not anymore....

There's also the "hot numbers" system of former commodities trader Gail Howard who charts the winning numbers in recent lotteries and forecasts them like futures. Half of all winning numbers, she claims, have hit within the previous three games.

This is bunk, mathematicians insist. "Runs" or "clusters" of the same winning number are a natural part of random selection, and noticing their presence in past drawings makes them no more likely to appear in the next lottery.

The only way to be sure of winning a 49-number lottery like Florida's is to spend about $15 million buying all the possible number combinations. But then if five or six other people also draw winners you'll just barely break even.

An international investment group apparently used this method to win a $27 million jackpot in Virginia's 44-number lottery earlier this year, buying at least 5 million out of 7 million possible number combinations. Luckily for them, they drew the only winner.

For those of us without millions of dollars to risk, there's only one sure way of doubling our money: fold once and return to the wallet.

Against All Odds
Michael Hofferber
Photo caption: Jewish Agricultural workers from the Jewish Autonomous Region in Birobidjan, Siberia encourage people to join Birobidjan Lottery
Lottery Winning Systems by Gail Howard

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Good Fences, Bad Neighbors

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1993. All rights reserved.

"Good fences make good neighbors," said the poet's neighbor, as if a wall could improve on human nature or protect one from its failings.

The poet was not convinced, and from what I've seen lately his neighbor had it backwards. Only good neighbors make good fences.

For the past several months Neighbor B has been feuding with Neighbor A over the size and appearance of his fence -- eight feet tall and a hundred feet long, sculpted from old barn wood. An eyesore, says Neighbor B. A necessity, says Neighbor A.

Neighbor B, you see, bought land next to Neighbor A a few years ago and built a home there. Then he started landscaping and, as neighbors often do, questioned the property line. Neighbor A's fence was trespassing, said Neighbor B. That's where its always been, said Neighbor A, whose favorite apricot tree grew from the contested soil.

Bad blood began brewing between the two. What one side saw as a clear case of trespass the other interpreted as petty greed. Neighbor A believed he could have won the case in court, but at a high cost. Instead, he moved the fence, his garden and his apricot tree.

By now Neighbor A and Neighbor B could barely stand the sight of each other. They glared when they met. They growled like dogs. They made enemies of each others' families and each others' friends.

"Before I built a wall I'd ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was likely to give offense," said the poet.

Both Neighbor A and Neighbor B built separate walls along the same property line with just a couple feet of no man's land between. Neighbor B's wooden fence rose six feet high while Neighbor A's rose eight. Neighbor B's was stained and tidy. Neighbor A's was rough-cut and well-weathered.

"Illegal!" cried Neighbor B.

"Harassment!" cried Neighbor A.

Both wanted to wall out their neighbor and wall in their peace of mind. But Neighbor B could have neither so long as two feet of foreign fence loomed over his property, and Neighbor A could never rest knowing Neighbor B was out to get even.

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down," said the poet.

A wind storm came up this past week and nearly toppled the issue. Instead, the fences held and the feud was fanned to full flame. "A safety hazard!" cried Neighbor B. "A right to privacy!" cried Neighbor A. And they nearly came to blows.

I can still see them, armed with shovels and sledge hammers, shoring up their defenses and shouting at each other over their walls.

"He moves in darkness as it seems to me," concluded the poet, "Not of woods only and the shade of trees."

There are good neighbors and there are bad neighbors, I admit, but you cannot be one if your neighbor is the other. No one can be a neighbor alone; the word "neighbor" should always be plural. Neighbors share more than geographic space. They share a place in time, an altitude, a climate and an atmosphere. Some share streets and water systems and fire protection.

Good neighbors also share squash and barbecues and children. They copy each others' recipes, admire each others' gardens, jump-start each other's dead batteries.
Bad neighbors sacrifice and accuse and scorn. They live isolated lives, separated from one another by gripes and prejudices and resentments.

The poet probably had it right. Bad neighbors make bad fences.