Day 6: Wednesday, 3 April 2014: Near Flint, MI
After we had eaten breakfast, part of which involved entertaining Aunt Doris with my tea-making, we sat down to try to sort out what we were going to do. The farm next door is run by Glenda, one of the daughters of Aunt Doris and Uncle Bill, and Glenda’s husband Bill (she runs the admin side, while he runs the hands-on stuff. And yes, Bill is a popular name in parts of SJ’s family, apparently: Aunt Doris is married to a Bill, Aunt Faye is married to a Bill, and Glenda is too!). When we were talking the previous evening, Aunt Doris had talked about taking us around the farm, and possibly taking us up to Frankenmuth at some point, and she had arranged a dinner for us and their other daughter and her husband that coming evening. On top of those, SJ also wanted to go back to visit Robb and his family. But most of all, we needed to work out how many days we would be spending in Michigan now, after the delays caused by headlight problems and generally not getting as far each day as we originally planned – leaving late the first day, not getting as far as planned the second day because of headlights, not getting anywhere the next day, and so on.
After looking over maps and the spreadsheet SJ had worked out for the route, we decided that we’d be able to get back on schedule if we stayed in Michigan for three nights – two full days (the 3rd and 4th of April) – and then tried to cover the 620 or so miles from Flint, Michigan to the top of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waynesboro, Virginia in one day instead of two, on the 5th.
So, now that we knew how long we were going to be in Michigan, we needed to decide how to spend the time. We decided that we’d go to Robb’s the next day, and Frankenmuth that evening, and that we’d stay closer to Aunt Doris’ for the rest of the current day, look around the farm, and of course enjoy the dinner that evening. We were going to go over to the farm, but first Uncle Bill wanted to show us his workshop…
Workshop is practically a misnomer: I’ve seen houses smaller than the space Uncle Bill has as a workshop. Uncle Bill does vinyl design and printing, and often gets called upon to make decals for vehicles (he’ll paint designs directly onto them too; he’s an accomplished artist). The ground floor of his workshop is a large open area where vehicles can be parked as he works on them (doubling as a garage), and the walls are adorned with a vast array of interesting things: painted sawblades (something I’d never run into before, although SJ tells me it’s quite common in rural parts of the US); models; cowboy figures Uncle Bill has carved from wood (he’s a big fan of cowboys); posters; paintings; drawings; decals; and even some musical instruments! Upstairs (I told you it was large…) is his office, where his computer, vinyl printer and cutter, and all the supplies for it are housed.
Uncle bill showed us how he worked, going from basic images and photos, setting up everything in the PC, to how the vinyl printer and cutter works. After that, he started asking various Windows and general software-related questions, and I tried to help him out with a few things. SJ wandered back down to look at the artwork downstairs; she was still tired from having woken up so early so many days in a row, and it was quite hot in Uncle Bill’s office, so she needed to walk around somewhere cooler.
After answering Uncle Bill’s questions, we both went back down to join SJ, who had noticed the piano over in the corner. It turns out that Uncle Bill can actually play a range of instruments – including piano, guitar, violin, and several more – and he played the piano for us a bit. SJ was surprised to learn that Uncle Bill can’t read music, though: he has sheet music there, but that’s just for the lyrics to songs rather than for the music.
Aunt Doris came in towards the end of the musical interlude, probably to see whether we were lost in the man cave, and we all piled into their car to go to a place called Apollo Family Restaurant for lunch; not quite a local greasy spoon of a place, but it’s not far off. It was decent, with a variety of choices, and a comfortable enough place.
While we were at Apollo we ran into some of Uncle Bill’s relatives, including a recently widowed relative. I was Exhibit A once again, and was commanded to Talk To Them as they’d never met that most curious and peculiar of creatures known as the Englishman before. This is always a problem for me, as my reserves of smalltalk are essentially non-existent, and saying things like “Good morrow, completely unknown to me female of an older persuasion! I hear tell that your once-and-former hubby is now imitating the Norwegian Blue?” (video) is probably not the most tactful option in the world. I believe that the conversation involved some discussion of my occupation, not that this generally helps matters. “I perform dark and arcane acts involving computers; invoking unknown horrors, and meddling with terrible secrets beyond mortal ken” may not be what I say, but I’m pretty sure that’s what people hear.
After lunch, we stopped by a Kroger supermarket on the way back to Aunt Doris and Uncle Bill’s house. Mostly SJ and I wanted to see what was available there (particularly in the way of bread, given Chris’ pickiness), as we knew we’d need to replenish supplies when leaving Davison to head south to the Blue Ridge Parkway, but we also needed to pick up a couple of things for breakfast the next day.
On the way back to the house, Uncle Bill said that he’d show us some of the farm. The farm apparently covers some 10,000 acres, so we thought we’d be covering a fair amount of ground looking at some of the fields and the extent of the farm, especially as we’d be “doing a drive-by” (and there was poor old me without any semi-automatic. Not even a remotely gangstah drive-by!). But no: the main farm buildings, the silos, and the storage areas are all together in one compact area, and that’s where they drove us through. They pointed out several buildings, and explained some things, but we couldn’t really see a great deal from within the car and we didn’t stop, basically going through a loop and heading back to the house.
Once we got back to the house Uncle Bill went out to his workshop to work on some commissions, and Aunt Doris started putting away groceries. A few days before we had left England I had damaged my thicker coat, and it had started leaking feathers (it has goose down stuffing). This hadn’t mattered in Louisiana, but ever since Lafayette, Indiana, I’d been wearing the coat and getting irritated at the feathers escaping. As we had some downtime, I decided that I would break out our little travel sewing kit and repair the seam that had been damaged, so I brought the sewing kit and my coat out to the dining table, as there is a large window and good lighting there, and got to work with a needle and thread. Aunt Doris was shocked and impressed that I could – and quite willingly would – do this, and we spent quite some time talking about the fact that I know how to sew, and will do it, and have no problems with hand-fixing things if needed. Once I’d fixed my coat we left Aunt Doris, who was working on dinner, and SJ suggested that we go for a walk out around the farm.
Uncle Bill had told us that we could just walk around the farm and nobody would bother us. This rather surprised me, as wandering around unaccompanied on an English farm is not something I’d recommend as a hobby. English farmers would certainly enquire about your presence and intentions (probably involving rather cruder language, potentially questioning the interloper’s parentage and species), and may even call the police. As it turned out it didn’t matter anyway: just as we were leaving, Uncle Bill came back to the house and offered to take us over and show us around a bit.
The first place we went to was one of the main maintenance buildings – Uncle Bill wanted to talk to some people there – and while we waited for him we looked around a bit, feeling rather out of place. In the middle of the building was a huge tractor, easily twice as big as any English tractor I had ever seen, that several workers were polishing – yes, polishing – to the point that it gleamed. If it wasn’t for the tyres, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that it was brand new off the production line, not a working tractor! We later found out that the farm owner is strict about making sure that the workers keep the equipment in pristine condition: washed, polished, any damage has to be fixed up, dents and scratches buffed out and repainted. Unusual, but quite sensible – there’s a lot of money in those machines, and treating them right helps make them last.
Next we went over to the main admin building where the farmer’s wife – Aunt Doris and Uncle Bill’s daughter Glenda – was working. When we got there, she was on the phone, so while we were waiting I looked around a bit. The office had a dividing counter with desks, computers, and other accoutrements of bureaucracy on one side; and a mostly clear area on the other side for truckers and farm workers. “Mostly” because they’d built a ramp up to a windowsill, and placed a load of cushions and blankets at the top; a place for one of the dogs to sit and watch the world go by.
After a while Glenda came over and chatted with us, and offered to give us a guided tour of the farm buildings. We gratefully accepted, and she took us through most of them, explaining what they were for, and pointing out a variety of interesting and occasionally amazing things.
One of the first stops was their relatively newly-built pesticide and fertiliser loading building, set a good way away from any of the others because of the danger of explosion inherent in keeping any large amount of nitrates and phosphates around. The building is lined with pipework and valves that let the workers drive tractors in through one door, load them up with the substance du jour, and then drive out of another door. The next building was a workshop where several pieces of farm machinery were being worked on, including a huge hulking mass that looked like the offspring of a giant green crab and a wire factory (it was a seed planter actually. So a giant green crab/wire factory hybrid that thrusts its seeds into the very Earth.)
After eyeing the seed monster, Glenda took us to the largest building on the site: an huge, cavernous place that housed three combine harvesters, three huge tractors, grain hopper trailers, a truck, and more! We were amused to find that the combines where each named after cartoon or film characters – Shrek and Popeye characters – and Uncle Bill had done labels and pictures on each of them. SJ climbed up into the cab of one of the big tractors, each of which had wheels as tall as me, with four tires per axle to help spread their weight, and posed for a photograph. I refrained from attempting the same because I was, frankly, concerned about being clumsy and damaging something. I was happy to just look! But big as the machinery was, there was a lot of space left in the building, which made us even more amazed when Glenda told us that during harvest time they move everything out of the building and use it to supplement the grain silos, filling it almost to the ceiling from end to end with corn kernels!
The next stop was another storage building, albeit much smaller, that contained more farm machinery, this time including the “Terra-Gator”, a three-wheeled vehicle with tires as big as SJ, with a big hopper on the back that they fill with organic pellet fertiliser: chicken poop! Uncle Bill had made a “What the kluck?” sticker for the back of it that made us chuckle a lot.
The farm operates a range of services for other farmers, including storage and corn drying in a new drier tower, and Glenda showed us the huge silos (one 70ft, one 60ft, a 40ft, and a 30ft, each a good 40ft across) they have for storing various forms of grains and she was going to show us the trucker’s lounge and laboratory, but they’d just had them repainted and the fumes from the paint were…. well, I could hardly stick my head around the door before my eyes started watering!
Why does a farm need a laboratory? Apparently the price the farm can get for the corn varies drastically based on the moisture content, level of foreign matter, impurities or mould present: getting it even slightly wrong can be the difference between a healthy, profitable harvest and a disaster. The farm has to send samples off for an evaluation that determines the price, but they test it on-site to try to make sure that they get it as good as possible before doing so.
We were just about to head off when Bill (the farmer, Glenda’s husband, not Uncle Bill…) came by and said hello. He was pretty busy, and couldn’t stay long, so after a few brief words he headed off, and we decided we’d head back to Aunt Doris’ to get out of the cold. Glenda told us that she’d probably drop in for a little while later, and headed back to the office as we wandered through the massed silos.
Back at Aunt Doris’ we hung out while she made dinner, eventually joined by Uncle Bill and Aunt Doris’ other daughter Rhonda, and her husband David. It was a good dinner; Aunt Doris is an excellent cook and had made a very tasty spread. David is an avid swimmer, and he talked about wanting to swim the English Channel one day. Unfortunately we had to enlighten him about the fact that it is wider than he thought it was (21 miles at the closest, rather than the 13 he thought it was), and that the Strait of Dover (said 21 mile span) is the busiest shipping channel in the world. He was rather less enthused at the idea after that… Part-way through the meal Glenda dropped by briefly, and for a while I was again under strict orders to talk as now three of SJ’s female relatives wanted to listen to my accent, even though they noticed that it was fairly Americanised now, but “when you keep talking I hear [your accent],” as Rhonda said. Immigration came up, as it inevitably does, but thankfully much sillier things like crazy British traditions (Welly Wanging, Black Pudding Throwing competitions, Cheese Rolling, and so on…) came up as well. We filled the evening with all sorts of talk, and had a great time as the sun set and darkness fell outside.
After dinner had finished, Rhonda and David had left, and dishes were cleared, we sat talking for a while and SJ got some laundry done, but around 10pm SJ decided that she wanted to head to bed, as did Aunt Doris, so we said our goodnights, showered, and got into bed at a vaguely reasonable time.
While lying in bed awaiting sleep, one of the things that struck me the most was the silence. While arranging the visit, Aunt Doris had mentioned that there was a ‘lot of traffic’ on the road, and when then farm is busy there may be, but as I lay there I reflected on the fact that back at home we get more cars going past the house at night in five minutes than I’d noticed or heard go past in hours. The silence was nearly unbroken; I miss it.