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Dispatches from the Driving Front – What I Won’t Say

Our favorite part of annual Michigan trip is the National Blueberry Festival in South Haven. Van Buren county is blueberry country, so the festival is a huge deal. A Little Miss Blueberry is crowned each year. Every year artists peddling blueberry-themed crafts take over the park. Every year another generation of kids makes themselves sick at the pie-eating contest (don’t ask for any flavor other than blueberry). And all of it is kicked off with a fly-in breakfast at the local airport featuring antique planes and, you guessed it, blueberry pancakes.

This year’s festival will still be dripping with blueberries, but unlike almost every year up to this one, the berries on the pancakes and in the pies will have been picked almost a month in advance. Why? An early spring combined with the record-breaking drought created an early harvest, and this is a less detrimental version of the pattern we have seen all over the parched midwest this year.

Hearing about the drought on the news is one thing. Driving past field after field of stunted corn and shriveling vegetables is another. And while, as Wendell Berry has noted, some agrarian economists may believe we have too many people on farms, I wonder what those economists will say when the price of food begins to climb this fall. I know what I won’t be saying.

I won’t be saying that fewer farms makes us more secure as a nation. I won’t say that living detached from the source of our food and the people who produce it (at all levels) would benefit my family financially or socially. And I won’t be saying that shrinking the number of and type of farms that feed us all is progress.


Dispatches from the Vacation Front – Rural Roots Realized

When I was younger, I despised the idea of being a small town girl. For the first thirteen years of my life, we lived in a large city on the east coast which I loved. When we relocated to the suburb of a smaller city in the midwest, I thought I had started a prison sentence, and I spent the rest of my teen years planning an escape back to urban life. But what I didn’t realize – and would have forcefully denied at the time – was that I was trying to escape to the wrong place.

Our summer vacations were almost always spent in our other home near South Haven, Michigan. My grandfather was born there. My grandmother’s family had built a summer house there, and, while the dunes had swallowed that house years before I was born, we still made the sojourn to the then-barren piece of land by the lake. We camped or stayed at our favorite motel in South Haven until my grandmother found creative ways to finance the building of a new house (make sure that funny-looking painting behind the bar actually is junk before you donate it to Goodwill).

Family was the ultimate focus of those visits – our entire extended family congregated there each year – but the ambience was small town. My grandmother made every evening meal a production that began with a morning visit to the lady selling corn by the road, the proceeds kept in an honor box on a card table. Each of us has memories of following her to the butcher, the bakery, and the blueberry farm. And it was only two days ago, during our annual day trip to Chicago, that I realized this annual immersion in rural life had planted a seed.

We were all excited about the museum excursion the other day. The parking there is good, and we always find people in Chicago to be very friendly. But it is a city with all of the attendant traffic and congestion and crowds. Most of all, there is constant noise.

But we went and picked our must-see exhibits and then spent the day shepherding the kids from spot to spot. When we got in the car to start the two-hour ride home at the end of the day, the comparative silence of the now-empty parking garage was a welcome change. But it was not to last. As soon as we pulled out, we were treated to the cacophony that is Chicago traffic just after rush hour. This was to be the soundtrack much of our return trip, and by the time the landscape had changed from city to industrial tracts to suburbs and finally to farms again, we did not feel enriched. We felt drained.

We got off the interstate and rolled the windows all the way down. My husband drove slowly, and we drank in the quiet and the familiar landmarks. I felt I was seeing some of them for the first time because the mobile homes and the scraggly dune-grass and trees looked beautiful. As we turned in the driveway, I realized it was because they reminded me of the Vermont home where we’ve set down roots and that this is the place those roots first began to grow.


Dispatches from the Vacation Front – A Taste of Home

Every year our family – our entire family migrates in groups to Covert and South Haven, MI. along the shores of Lake Michigan. My grandfather grew up in South Haven – a town that has been a resort for Chicago's privileged classes since the late 1800s. My grandmother's family 'summered' here. My parents and aunts and uncles and cousins and I have come here almost every summer of our lives. And in the combined eighty-plus years we've been living in and visiting southwestern Michigan, we have seen many changes.

Some changes – like the introduction of big box stores and the evolution of the town's storefronts from purveyors of the practical to the collections of beach-inspired kitsch – are obvious, and not always good ones. Others, are more subtle but enrich our appreciation of our adopted home town in completely unexpected ways.

Away from the beach towns and yacht clubs, South Haven and its environs are mostly small town or rural. Many of the old small businesses I knew as a child have folded in the wake of 'progress', but modest homes and farms still define much of the landscape. This is the world my grandfather knew, and it is disappearing, but there is a small place in Covert that is not just keeping this spirit alive, it's breathing new life into it.

We still go into South Haven for groceries, but my parents' place – passed down from great-grandparents to grandparents to parents – is in the smaller, less touristy town of Covert. We go there to use the library. A few years ago, however, a mexican immigrant bought some of the land there from a retiring farmer and started a farm stand. This is not exactly novel in a farming community, but what was novel was the restaurant he quickly installed there.

Arrellanos, as the place is known, is a mecca for the town's mexican immigrants – they can buy imported food there and catch up. But it has also become the go-to place for fantastic mexican food for people in the area. With colorful, plastic-protected tablecloths decorating tables surrounded by a deli, Arellano has given the place color – an integral piece of small-town character.

By becoming the proverbial American success story this farm stand is feeding the optimism in all of us. It is helping to make a previously almost-invisible part of the population – the people who pick the food around here – visible. It has introduced non-mexican-Americans to another view of Mexican culture. And for us – our entire family has grown addicted to the place – it has become another taste of home.


Dispatches from the Drive – Philosophy for Wimps

I am wimp. I can admit it. I don’t like it, but as we drove westward into a ferocious storm that we knew had spawned tornados to the west of us, I was clutching my weather map and scanning the Indiana horizon for any of the tell-tale signs of a funnel cloud forming. For thirty minutes lightening-filled minutes, my husband pressed on, both of us keeping a look out for an emergency place to pull over.

I should be used to this; for almost 20 years I lived in a tornado-prone area. I had even chased a tornado once, turning back only when I almost caught up to it and realized how stupid I was. But for some reason, my ability to see this storm philosophically – as most adults seem to see these types of trials – eluded me. I kept calm for the sake of the kids, but as we watched finger-like funnels trying to form behind us and lightening hitting the ground a few hundred feet from the highway, I was panicking inside.

What perplexes me each time these things happen is how I don’t get used to them. After the storm or a family-member’s week-long stint in the ICU, I feel the adrenalin and say to myself, “This, too, has passed.” But when it’s happening, I am a jelly fish.

And so, now we come through another storm, safe and sound – and I am left to wonder if I will ever face these a hurdle while it’s happening and be able to say, “This, too, SHALL pass,” even if I don’t know that it will.


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