Barns, Back Roads, and Emerson Radios - America in the Rear View Mirror

Traveler’s Tip #347 

Drive out of the suburbs. Past that big intersection with the Home Depot, Walmart, and Chili’s. You know the one—every town has it these days. Keep going. Don’t turn in to that neighborhood… What’s it called? The Landings, The Falls, The Glades? Something like that. Of course there’s no water or forest or ship to be seen. Keep going. Past the Italian place—fake Tuscan—splotchy drywall and stucco. Past the Mexican place—pretend adobe—the beams in the front are plastic and starting to peel. Past the outlet mall and the Texaco Travel Plaza (Subway right inside) and the MacDonald’s. Keep driving. Drive till you can breathe. Where the streetlights get further apart and then disappear altogether. Drive to where the stars start. 
  
No Interstate for you. Stick to the back roads. The asphalt will eventually give way to gravel. You’re getting closer. Slow down when you see the rusted John Deere tractor on the left and watch for a rutted dirt road that angles off to the right. Take it. After a mile or so, next to the big fir tree, stop and turn off the engine. Listen to it tick. That and the birds waking up are the only sounds you’ll hear out there. 
  
Then, just as the sun starts to rise… you’ll see it. Off to the east, silhouetted against the sky…a barn. 
  
No big deal. There are thousands of them tucked into forgotten pockets of America. If you’ve driven the rural tracks and trails you’ve seen them. This one, it’s not really any different from any others—and that’s what makes it great. You see, each and every one of them hold a thousand stories. 
  
Grab your Stanley thermos (if you don’t have one, you should—green, preferably) and pour yourself a cup. Head for the barn, no one will mind. No need to leave your phone in the car, there isn’t any service anyway. Just open the big, sliding door and step in. It’s quiet in there. You can hear yourself think—how long has it been? Particles of dust laze and swirl in fresh sunbeams—their own little universes and solar systems. Take a breath. Smell the old hay and oil and ghosts. Let the world fade. 
  
As far as the locals are concerned the barn has been there forever. No one remembers the young man with the black hair and thick beard who built it. Ah, but you should have seen him. He worked sunup to sundown and often long into the night for months. Once in a while a neighbor helped, but in those days people weren’t close by and even if they were they had their own work to do. A man got by the best he could. Board by board, the barn was built. Then a house. Eventually a wife came along. And children. And grandchildren. 
  
But the sun rises. Sun sets. Clocks tick. By the fourth generation that first family moved on, give or take a few second cousins. Others came. They always do. And so it went. Season after season. Year after year. 
  
Still, there the barn stood. 
  
Take a look around, but don’t rush. The thing is, here, away from the incessant noise that echoes through the cosmos, you’ve encountered the authentic. This is not Bear Country Jamboree. This is not Cracker Barrel. This is the real thing. That coffee can of rusty nails in the windowsill? It was put there the same week Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. We were a country of dreamers and achievers then…much like the young man that built the place. We were fighters and everyday heroes. Sure, there may have been a few desperados in the woodpile, but for the most part we were loyal, lovers of family—lovers of good. 
  
There used to be an old Emerson radio that sat on the workbench although it was gone by Neil Armstrong’s time. News came in on it, baked fresh and still warm from the glow of tubes. WW1, WW2, the Yankees win the series… Benny Goodman, Lefty Frizzel, Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams...they launched their genius into the airwaves and vibrated the molecules through that 4-inch speaker. 
  
Before the Emerson radio, a horse was born in the back stall. 1903, I think it was. There were high hopes he'd win the Kentucky Derby. Maybe even the whole Triple Crown. Of course, these hopes were held exclusively by a very single-minded eight-year old girl. Her name was Esmeralda Mills. Though tender in years, her faith and love was unwavering as is often the way between girls and horses. Old Baldy never made it twenty miles from the farm let alone all the way to Kentucky, but Esmeralda was riding him the day she met Lonnie Weaver. She and Lonnie were married in the doorway of this very barn a year later. A year after that, Lonnie shipped out for France and the Great War. 
  
See that stream of light coming in down low through the east-facing wall? If you look close, you’ll find a hole and a crack in the boards. That was the result of one of Fergus Weaver’s fastballs. A pitch everyone figured would take him straight to the Majors. But then again there are a lot of holes in a lot of walls of a lot of barns—dreams grow fast and big in these places. Fergus made it as far as the Yakima Bears and played for a few years before coming back to ranch. Not the Yankees by a long shot, but everyone was proud anyway. 
  
I love this one—In 1977, Bob Weaver and his pop, Carl, used the barn every night after work to retrofit a nearly-totaled ’64 Chrysler Imperial for the demolition Derby at the State Fair. The strangest thing—Cal’s hands, which shook badly since his return from Viet Nam, got better over the weeks he and Bob worked. By the time they finished those hands were steady as a rock. His wife swore to everyone who would listen—and even some that wouldn’t—it was a miracle. Carl just chalked it up to time with his son and a quieting of the mind. The boys made it to the derby, but even though they welded pieces of railroad track into the doors and around the radiator the Chrysler was only the second car knocked out of competition. Carl and Bob never seemed to mind. They still talk about that time together, and that loser car as their greatest triumph. I think they’re right. 
  
So many stories. Presidents, wars, feast and famine. Good years, bad years, and in between. Edison, prohibition, Bonnie and Clyde, Steinbeck, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Elvis, Martin Luther King Jr.… America. The barn has stood implacable for a long, long time. It is history. It is solidity. Built carefully and firmly on its foundation of stones. It has seen wind and rain, flood, snow and sun. Hopefully it will see more. 
  
You see, somewhere along the road we've stopped building barns, at least not like our fathers built them. Instead we've become demanders of the immediate. Great and skilled builders of flash and mirrors and monuments to the temporary. We are full, drunk, and merry. We are rich and lacking in nothing. We are addicted, lost, and drifting. 
Doing what seems right in our own eyes, we’ve written off heavenly and wise advice about stone foundations and opted for sand because it’s cheaper at to buy Lowe’s. 
  
There are bulldozers on the horizon, folks. Kicking up dust and coming fast. They say the old barns needs to go to make way for the newer and shinier. To quote Joni Mitchell, They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Such is progress. 
  
Keep your progress. This old dinosaur is buying a Stanley thermos and an Emerson radio. 
  
Take it to the street, Pilgrims. 
  
Fair winds, 
Buck 

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