19 December 2009

Quakers in the Country: Transportation

I guess that we have a different view of transportation than do people who live closer in to town. We’re not really that far out, perhaps two miles to the blacktop and three more to the post office and feed store. Of course, in the metropolis of Belmont, Ohio, that’s about all you get. There’s a little dry goods store there in town, all creaky old board floors and glass-fronted wooden cabinets that haven’t been moved in 75 years, probably. But if you want to buy green onions, it’s a 50 mile round trip to a chain grocery store, and going to the very good local library is at least 20. And of course, now that the kids are attending the giant public elementary school across the interstate, they ride the school bus about an hour each way. You know you live out and away when the school bus drives up for your children, turns around in your dooryard, and heads back the same way it came.

Being far away from town means that transportation is an issue. The little town of Zebra up the road to the north about two miles closed its post office in 1901, and now David Kemp parks his pickup in the cellar under the old dry goods store. So we can’t buy anything there, nor can we buy anything in Lampville, about a mile to the south, because there’s nothing left there except a couple of old derelict pickup campers for the deer hunters and a one-holer outhouse that we occasionally use when we take walks in the evening. Nope, if we want to buy a gallon of ice cream or a hammer, it’s a twenty-mile round trip. To buy a piece of plywood is 50 miles, like the green onions. They tell me that there’s another general store in Centerville, about 15 miles to the east, but I’ve never been there, as it’s not on the way to anywhere I need to go. The reality is that out where we live, being able to go to meeting, to the grocery store, to the library, to anything like that, all require a commitment to some sort of significant transportation device.

The local Amish use buggies, surreys, and hacks to get around, at a pretty smart clip, too, with those standardbreds that they use. Toby Yoder once told me that one particularly good horse he had could make the 28 miles to Quaker City in about two and a half hours. They’re also the best vehicles for snow country, as a lightweight buggy can go places where any four-wheel-drive would founder hopelessly. We could buy a very decent buggy for about $1500, a sort-of decent horse for another $1500, and then a new set of nylon harness for about $300. Not too bad, and we have enough hay field to keep a horse fed cheap except in the winter. But so far all that we have is Dude, the twenty-five dollar donkey who is actually worth much less, as far as I’m concerned. The kids tell me that he is broken both for saddle and to drive, but Dude’s major function up to this point has been to provide sympathy to my hard-working and lonely wife when she wants a break from five demanding children and from coping alone with our perpetually deteriorating infrastructure, while I’m out on the road. When she needs a kindred spirit and I’m out driving through snow storms in Iowa, Shawna heads out to the old post-and-beam barn that Dude lives under, and shovels out his accumulating piles of organic matter. Then she sits down in a clean spot, and Dude comes up for companionship and to investigate her pockets for carrots. Dude doesn’t think nearly so well of me, and when I hold out a carrot he just stares back warily as if I was some sort of noxious vermin. The feeling is entirely mutual. One of these days, we’ll build a donkey cart out of pieces of old Chevrolet, and Dude can start contributing in other ways, but until then the donkey is mostly just a work- in-progress.

The kids are all self-taught bicycle riders. We live on a hilltop, so teaching yourself to roll down is pretty easy. They all start with the off-road tricycles their very kind grandmother bought for them from Lehman’s Hardware in Kidron, and graduate to two wheels whenever they want. But the bicycles are strictly recreational. They don’t work in the snow, which can be considerable, and the problem with hills is that every time you whiz down one going away, you have to chug back up to get home again. And the kids all know that going to see the neighbor kids is at least two or three miles, and while I’m not at all averse to telling them to hoof it, my lovely wife is more gracious and takes them in whatever excuse for a car we currently drive.


We consume cars out here, because our life is not gentle to them. Our roads are gravel, mud, dirt, and snow, and to leave our house in two directions you must drive through the creeks to get out (unless the water is too deep). The third direction is a long exposed ridge, about the highest place in the county. There’s no water up there, but after a snowfall the road may be as much as a foot or two deep in powder. The only way to take it then is with speed and dedication, but once you learn where the road is under the featureless blanket of snow on the hilltop, it’s actually not bad. While the snow is actually blowing and the windshield is blank, you have to steer slowly along the road by looking out an open side window and gauging your distance from the fence that parallels the road on one side. This is important, because if you stray too far to the other side, you tumble down a forty-five degree slope into the holler and won’t be found until spring.


The fresh summer road gravel sandblasts the car’s undercarriage, and the winter salt corrodes anything that can oxidize. We have a useful little minivan right now, and the sheet metal has holes in various places underneath where the gravel has eroded the metal away. In the summertime when the roads are dusty, the car fills with clouds of silt that get sucked into the unibody through the holes, and then is blown into the interior through the inner body vents thoughtfully provided by designers who obviously didn’t live in the country. When I drive, I steer with one hand and hold the door open with the other to let the slipstream suck the dust back out as it comes in. I have to open the door because the designers also equipped the car with power windows, which of course don’t work anymore and cost hundreds of dollars to fix. (The used ones I bought from the junkyard didn’t work any better than the used ones they replaced. I have never been able to learn that simple lesson. Oh, well.)

Tires are a problem, too. We don’t buy high-quality tires, because the sharp limestone and cinders the township uses for road metal shred them too quickly. Shawna doesn’t even have the replacement wheels mounted on the car anymore. When another one starts to leak or shows too much wire in the tread area, she goes down to Joe’s Tires and has Joe or his brother put on a new one and lift it into the back, behind the rear seat. Then when the tire blows, she changes to the new one on the roadside and has the next new one mounted and thrown into the back in turn. I asked her the other day if it would be easier just to bungee the new tires onto the roof, but I got the impression she was concerned by what people would say.

We have a few other vehicles kicking around. The old one-ton market van is sitting down by the warehouse, waiting for me to do something to it. It has a rear axle that howls and it needs valve seals, but since we don’t go to the Farmer’s Markets to sell beeswax and honey these days there isn’t much incentive to fix it. Besides, with the 4:11 rear end it only gets six or seven miles to the gallon, and though it holds all the kids legally and groceries too, it really isn’t economical. But it has lots of useful parts that can easily be adapted to other deteriorating vehicles we might end up with, so I keep it around. Besides, it's a cheap place to store things that the raccoons might otherwise make away with.


The two bee trucks are more useful, potentially, anyway. We used them to move us and our bee business from California when we came east to join up with Ohio Yearly Meeting. The little one-ton flatbed dually is four-wheel-drive, and can get in and out of the property on days when the snow or the creeks are too deep for anything else. When the well goes dry in the summer, we also use it to haul water from town, because the 4000-pound water tank is too heavy for anything else and the county won’t let us fill it from the nice new fire hydrant just two miles up the road. Currently it’s parked like the market van, because the front end has a frightening way of shaking its head violently on smooth roads, and we don’t have the thousand or so dollars it will undoubtedly take to fix. It’s only got about 40 or 50 thousand miles on its fourth engine, so we’re going to keep it until the rust makes it disintegrate.

The two-ton flat bed is parked out by the old carriage house. We bought it when I rolled the last one in California. Ever seen 15,000 pounds of honey spilled out over the road? Not pretty, especially when you’re hanging upside down from the seat belt. It has a nearly new Payne beehive loader on the back, but runs on propane. A propane truck is a good idea in some places and times, and when agricultural propane was cheap it made good sense to run it, even though it only gets 3.7 miles per gallon. A two-ton is a critically important tool to use if you’re running a 900-hive bee outfit, like we did in California, but out here in Ohio it seems less useful. But since we couldn’t get any money for it if we sold it, we leave it parked there, for the time being. I miss keeping bees, and running a few hundred hives is not a really time-consuming sideline if you can be there at the right times. Not right now, while I’m working as Billy Big Rigger.

And of course, there’s my ancient Triumph Bonneville, kept down in the warehouse. I’ve had that old motorcycle seventeen years longer than I’ve had my wife, and while that’s not a value-for-value comparison, I have no intention of relinquishing my relationship with either one. Motorcycles make excellent sense out here, although a four-wheel-drive ATV would be more useful in the woods. I’d like a sidecar for it, but that’s a low priority plan.

I’d trust the kids on an ATV sooner than I’d trust them on a motorcycle anyway. The two oldest can drive a car now that they’re tall enough. We start them out when they’re ten or eleven to get them used to the machine. They both need lots more practice, but where we live it’s not like there’s any traffic to worry about. We just don’t want them dropping off the road into the ravines by mistake. Or on purpose. There’s no such thing as traffic cops anywhere near where we live, now that the sherriff’s deputy and the nice young lady just up the road have apparently parted company, so there’s no societal issues involved in letting a ten year-old get behind the wheel on a public road.

But maintaining all these machines costs money if you use them, and I’m also getting more and more fed up with the aggravation and hassle of depending on internal combustion engines and machinery for transportation. A typical Amish buggy is about as low-tech as you can get and not be walking, and in our neighborhood you don’t need the electric lights and hydraulic brakes that the modern buggies a few counties north of us all come with. As fuel becomes more and more expensive, our lifestyle may be approaching a point where the regression lines cross, and suddenly animal traction begins to make more sense. We’ll need to modify our household economy, and not having the community infrastructure that the Amish have will mean that we’ll never be rid of the family car completely, but it’s becoming a more attractive alternative every day.

And since driving in a buggy means exposure to cold winter weather, we’ll need something nice and warm to spread out across our knees. We don’t have any buffalo here to make robes with, but I happen to know where there’s a fair-sized donkey that I could skin out in a jiffy. Besides, I hear that donkeys make excellent sausage, and I’m the only vegetarian in the house.

Maybe I could work something out here.


Michelle-ozark crafter said...

I really enjoyed your posts! I found you through Amish America blog. What a wonderful outlook on life you have and a great sense of humor! God bless and I will be back.

Anonymous said...

Kevin, your blog post is great. I'm a Californian Quaker wannabe OUTTAHERE and definitely want a buggy :). I come from a long line of Dunkard Brethren buggy owners. I think it's economically feasible and much more pleasant, personally. So think about a Clydesdale :)

The imPerfect Housewife said...

Hi Kevin ~ Found you from the Amish America blog. I was hooked just reading your profile and then the first post. Can't wait to go back and read more!! Have a good weekend ~

ann said...

Run, Dude, run!

I saw the link on Amish America, too... loved this post- the last made me LOL for real!

kevin roberts said...

Hi folks-

Thank you for visiting. What in the world is Amish America? Now I have to go looking. The Amish around here generally go for dark standardbreds for buggy work, and then Belgians mostly for heavy stuff. I've seen an occasional Percheron, I believe, and Aaron Shrock had a beautifully photogenic dapple gray mare before he took off for Missouri. Very unusual for Swartzentrubers to have anything but chestnut or darker.

Those giant horses get terrible fuel mileage, though, and the solution in some places has been to just run more of the smaller animals at a time. If you're pulling something like a baler or a hay wagon with ground drive, though, you really don't have any choice.

kevin roberts said...

Anonymous, I stepped out of California a few years back, and now I have snow (which I hate), but also quiet and peace (which I love). Anyway, buggies don't work in San Jose because the horses back ends make you unpopular. Get out when you can.

Ann, Dude doesn't run unless he sees me too late to just walk away. Or when I'm working on something he'll come up and watch over my shoulder, but then run away if I stand up and notice him. Otherwise he just walks around and chases the goat out through the electric fence.

Lisette said...

Hi Kevin and Shawna,

I also found your blog through the Amish America blog. For a few years now we've been trying to lead a simpler and plainer life too, which is not easy when you live in the busiest part of a small and overcrowded country (the Netherlands)but we try our best. Really enjoy your blog!.

kevin roberts said...

Hi Lisette-

The Netherlands are indeed a difficult place to simplify, as there is so much going on in so little space that it's hard to obtain any room.

Here in America one can move. Shawna and I packed up everything that would move, sold what wouldn't, and abandoned the rest to move 5000 kilometers from California to Ohio. That by itself was an Odyssey. Best of fortune in your journey.

elderberryjam said...

With donkeys, it appears that you and Bruce are kindred spirits. I'm not sure we will ever own one.

kevin roberts said...

Don't let Bruce's common sense stand in the way of a really good deal. This donkey can be confined forever in a large pen made of a single piece of orange string. There apparently doesn't even need to be a battery--the electric-looking string is good enough. It would stay completely out of your garden or hang out with the cows, no problem.

Plus, it hates goats.

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