For the past few days we’ve been staying at a farmhouse in Upstate New York near Lake Ontario. It’s green, humid and hot, surrounded by acres of corn, soy and apple trees. The long, straight roads are remarkable mainly for tractor signs and defunct raccoons.
The property where we were staying had a real barn, complete with real barn-swallows. Their nests were easily located thanks to large amounts of guano on the concrete floor underneath. The chicks had already fledged and were teetering on the edge getting ready to fling themselves around like arrows. In the evenings, the country was filled with the song of frogs. Our hosts had already found five different species of frog and toad including a tiny olive-green hopper that could easily jump to the height of a meter.
When we first arrived at the farm, we heard the plaintive singing of a coonhound eager to come outside and chase the car. Inside we made the acquaintance of said hound, Jethro. He’d been brought up as a rescue from Tennessee and had a little bit of ear taken off the bottom. Speculation was that a sibling had nipped it when he was a puppy.
Our host drove us into the nearby village of Wilson, whose pier sits on the edge of Lake Ontario providing an entrance to Tuscarora Bay, a popular local fishing spot. On a clear day you can see Toronto but that evening was misty, as you can see.
In the village itself, every block or so offered a reminder of Wilson’s past. For example, there was the grave of Billy Sherman, a confederate horse captured in Tennessee by a native Wilsonian. There was also the site of the village’s very first log house, now long gone, built by Mr. Reuben Wilson. And there was a marker of the birthplace of Private Ira S. Petit, author of Diary of a Dead Man. Greenwood Cemetery was a grove of evergreens in which lay the illustrious remains of one George H. Linnaberry, ‘Father of the Helicopter Rotor Blade’.
The next morning John and I walked in for breakfast at the local diner. A friendly woman brought us enormous pile of home fries, filter coffee and toast with butter and grape jelly. The wall was covered with photos of the town in various stages of history, family photos, embroidered prayers, a paeon to ‘Dad’, and a drawing done by schoolchildren to thank the owners for the delicious fries and ketchup. A community noticeboard near the entrance showed a poster declaring that someone needed a new kidney. I couldn’t finish the home fries but they didn’t mind.
On Sunday I had to go for a long run. Somewhat concerned because I couldn’t find my sunscreen, I set off in a T-shirt along a very straight road called Wilson-Youngstown because it led from the village of Wilson to that of Youngstown. I stopped in at a gas station to get water, Swedish fish and powerade so that I wouldn’t die of heatstroke. Starting out from the town, I passed neat little wooden houses on clipped green lawns, sometimes fronted by a white picket fence but otherwise with no fence or barrier at all either between the house and the road or between the houses themselves.
Trees—sycamore, elm and maple—cast sporadic shade along the road. Where the houses stopped, there was a bridge over a creek surrounded with lush greenery. The water was milky-green and shade-dappled and looked like a miniature piece of the Everglades. A large grey heron stood still about 100 meters away from me, peering into the murky liquid.
Beyond the village and the bridge, the land opened up into farmland. Houses very widely spaced presided over many acres of corn or soy or fruit tree. Most houses came with a big ramshackle red barn, an old water pump, a flag, an old farm vehicle and some kind of garden ornament (using the term loosely) such as a ceramic pig or couchant concrete lion. Now and then there would be a little self-serve fruit/egg/veggie hut. All in all it looked pretty familiar. After talking to our host, I discovered why that might be: Dunedin in New Zealand has a latitude of -45.87 and Wilson has one of 43.29.
Letterboxes became expressions of personality—one was painted with monarch butterflies, another was entwined with flowering morning glory, others bore the initial letter of the family name or a special notice:
I kept running but the landscape seemed vaster than the map had suggested. Huge billowing clouds suggested the intense humidity and cicadas and crickets chirped and jumped in the grassy, flowered verge. There was some traffic but not very much so occasionally I’d have to step aside into the weeds, trusting my ankles to the uncertain ground.
There was a white Methodist church that looked as if it was in the middle of nowhere but was obviously well tended and attended. Swallows perched on a wire over the road. Occasionally a bright-yellow bird with black-striped wings zoomed past or a cardinal dove into the rows of sweetcorn. I didn’t see many farm animals, not even cats. Occasionally there was a glimpse of the bright-blue lake in the distance through gaps in a distant line of trees.
I could tell I was getting sunburned but figured there wasn’t much I could do about it except to keep going. Time seemed to extend indefinitely. It would never end and that meant this run would never end either. My drink was almost finished but I wasn’t even halfway there. I noticed that I was getting chafed on my belly button, which had never happened before. I wondered if my stomach had suddenly gotten larger or if it was just that I was sweating more than usual. I kept telling myself it was nice to run in the countryside as opposed to the city, but that didn’t negate the fact that there was no shade and my arms were turning into tandoori chicken.
I looked desperately for milestones—the church, the veggie stands, the house with the giant flag, the combine harvester. I started to curse the whole place as a hostile environment full of Trump voters, proud of its sameness, its dullness, its flatness, even its offensive green-ness. I cursed their freshly laundered flags and signs screeching against gun control. All I wanted now was to get back to the gas station, get some water and go back to bed.
The bearded boy at the gas station greeted me cheerfully with, “Hey, long time no see!” Two little girls were taking a long time discussing exactly which candy they were going to buy. As I forked the cash over to the clerk, he looked hopefully at a big truck that had just pulled into the station.
“We’ve run out of two kinds of gas,” he explained. “And I’ve been waiting for replacements all morning.”
Now that I had my drink I was more inclined to feel kindly towards these people with their hail-fellow-well-mets and hearts of gold. Wishing him luck, I left the store and started walking the two miles home. I’d already run my allotment of miles and saw no need to prolong the ordeal. I admired the cute shops and library. It all looked like the kind of idyllic small-town America you used to see in Julia Roberts movies. Smiling pedestrians greeted me. Flowers grew in quirky pots, a big elementary school had a billboard saying, ‘Have a safe and fun summer.’ It seemed the cosy sort of place you might like to raise children or join a church group.
When I got back to the farm, our host invited me to have a go on the tractor. It was built in the 1960s and still looked practically new, that’s how well its previous owner had cared for it. I didn’t even want to think about the lengths you’d have to go to keep a working farm vehicle in such pristine condition for five decades. I climbed up on the seat, put the thing in first gear and the thing jerked into motion. I was just getting into the spirit of it when I noticed that I was heading for large holes where they’d been digging to find the septic tank. ‘This will not end well,’ I thought and put my foot on what I thought was the brake but was actually the accelerator. Then I tried to change the gear but there was a horrible grinding sound–apparently a tractor is not like a car in that you choose one gear and stick with it. Somehow I managed to stop in time and our host came over to turn the thing off, kindly assuring me that I hadn’t wrecked his tractor.