from sky to seed

Just another roadside attraction

We woke before dawn, unwilling, groaning. Unless sex is on the table, I prefer sleeping in. But the occasion merited the cause. Across state lines in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, our friend and neighbor Loren Garren, a true one-of-a-kind creature, was hosting a fur auction at 9 am.

Yes, fur.

Jon bought a gorgeous little zippy 1967 Chevy Nova a few weeks ago and it’s favorite new toy on the farm. We look for excuses to drive it on paved roads, which is tough since around here all the good ones are potholed and dirt, so outings have been limited to trips to the pet store for aquarium supplies. Nothing more than 20 miles. The engine had 300 miles on it when the car was delivered, so what we’ve really been itching for is a reason to run it wide open on the road.

Is there any better reason for a road trip?

So we rose at dawn, skipped breakfast and coffee. I brought a blanket because the car’s heater doesn’t work that well.

The GPS on my phone said the most efficient route was take I-44, which is the hideous tolled highway that cuts across the country from Oklahoma City to St. Louis. I hate this road. And so does Jon.

So we took the old highway instead, which is a few roads south of the farm and stretches toward Grove, Oklahoma. The moon was a narrow sliver hanging low among scattered stars. Without talking, we follow the highway’s dips and crests through hollows populated by single modest homes, typically white, with nearby corrals surrounded in pipe fences and gleaming under lone yard lights.

When we crossed the overpass above Highway 71, I could see every house in the valley, seemingly adrift in the darkness. The sight always reminds me of the crab boats at sea of my childhood. We stopped for gas around 6 am. By then, a pale blue band preceded the sunrise.

I was getting hungry then, and every time we passed a McDonalds I pointed it out to Jon but he shook his head ‘no.’

“We are not eating a damn McDonalds,” he cried. “We’re going to find a wonderful little cafe.”

He does this all the time. It’s a pretty common disagreement between us during road trips. I love independently-owned cafes just as much as the next person, but my experience on the road has taught me that America’s rural outposts, particularly those in the Midwest, don’t usually put their best food forward in roadside diners.

I know, I know, there are some. It’s true. The Otis Cafe in Oregon Coast, as does the Lo-Pass Cafe. I don’t doubt that you know of one or two. Every state has them. But they are not common. And they’re increasingly endangered. And in its wake are shitty little cafes popping up here and there pretending to be authentic but they’re not. They’re serving the same frozen hashbrowns and scrambled eggs that the Denny’s down the street is offering at half-the price and with better service and cleaner bathrooms. Sorry. It’s the truth.

“The myth of the American roadside diner is dead,” I told Jon. “It’s a nice fiction that used to be true but it’s not real anymore.”

“That’s the problem with you,” Jon snapped. “You have no faith. Imagine how it must be for some wonderful tourist to be driving down CC Highway and find the Longview Diner.”

The Longview Diner is a terrible restaurant nearby that Jon loves to eat breakfast at before he goes to work on the Stella farm. There is nothing unique, nothing individualized, nothing quirky or local or with flares of personality about it. It’s like truckstop food without the appeal of a real truckstop.

“That is an exception to the rule,” I conceded. “Real American food is in America’s cities.”

And on and on we bantered and battled. Ah, love.

I stood firm until the highway took us through the square of a tiny town called Jay, Oklahoma and right there in front of us was the J-Way Cafe.

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Jon hates posing for pictures so he always ruins them.

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So we ate breakfast (good, not great) and I ate my words.

And back we climbed into the car and on we went toward Okmulgee.

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The old highway we chose cuts through the Oklahoma Ozarks, home to Where the Red Fern Grows.I wish I’d made Jon stop to let me take photos, but we were already running late and I was full and sleepy after breakfast. I dozed for most of the remaining drive, but blinked awake to a few vivid scenes–bare trees on rocky hills throwing long shadows across the pavement, calm sandy rivers flanked by banks strewn with flood litter, sprawling ranch gates, rocky creek beds. It felt like a landscape made for child’s play and child’s dreams, like something haunted and haunting. In the low valleys, fog hung in a thin haze.

And then, Okmulgee. The landscape flattened out by this point and in the fields among cows was the occasional oil pump bobbing up and down.

The auction was held at the Okmulgee Fair Grounds in a large open room with florescent lighting. Someone had stretched black plastic bags across the floor and quilted them together with duct tape. Folding tables lines the walls with signs for buyers marked by numbers. Sellers, the trappers I suppose, laid their furs in neat stacks and piles on the bags and would bring their pelts forward by groups.

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There were only a few sellers. I’m not sure if what we saw here is typical of fur auctions, but the prices seemed heartbreakingly low. When a set of racoon furs sold for 10 cents a piece, Jon mumbled that he’d rather pay someone a dollar an animal not to kill it at all.

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Loren has some health troubles and wasn’t up for standing during the auction, so he sat adjacent to the auction table and rattled off the numbers. His voice is so loud (“I can throw my voice up over a hill!” he likes to say) that he doesn’t need a microphone at these auctions, though this one had just one row of buyers anyway.

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After the pelts (coyote, fox, otter, bobcat, racoon, possum) sold, little kids would carry the furs to the buyer’s table. I was amazed by their total lack of squeamishness. Watching them was my favorite part of the whole event.

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I don’t quite know what to think of all this, to be honest. I love animals just as much as the next person, but I suppose that the way I was raised in Alaska had me living within and alongside nature with enough intimacy to have a hunter’s heart about it. Animals are beautiful and wild and necessary. But we must kill the eat and live. The furs are sent to cold storage and then eventually sold to the market abroad–Asia (China), Europe and Russia. Is this right? I don’t know. I don’t wear furs, so I guess you could say I have zero stake in it.

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And the pelts sell for so little. The trappers clearly aren’t doing this for a living, and if they are, it can’t be much of a way of life.

So it seems it must be for hobby and tradition instead, or they might be the sort of people that hunters are–who find intimacy in nature by working within it and for sport and for livelihood. Is it really any more humane to do what we do, raising cows and then sending them to slaughter? Is it more humane than what the average consumer, who eats meat free of guilt?

I feel conflicted, but I don’t feel bad.

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