Cold drinks, hot dogs, drive-thru beer
Rick Landau 2002/05/06
The landscape is divided by the Great Wall of train. Hundreds of parked railroad cars, hundreds, as far as we can see on both directions, several miles. The cars are all the same closed-container type with no markings, just a plain white hot dog on wheels with an access door at the top center. What they transport in these cars, I have no idea. The whole train must have been parked there for a long time, at least days, probably weeks. It is clearly a semi-permanent fixture on this landscape. How can one tell? Well, there are grade crossings here at every road. Bridges and overpasses are too expensive and just not called for by the minimal traffic, either rail or road. As we drive along the train, we see that it is deliberately broken at every grade crossing. The cars are disconnected and moved far enough apart so that every little road, whether blacktop or dirt, is unobstructed. This went on for the three miles we saw, paved roads and dirt paths just the same. Doing that to the train must take a fair amount of work, positioning the train just so, setting the brakes, uncoupling at some point, moving forward just enough, then uncoupling at the next crossing, and on and on for the several dozen roads. How bizarre, I thought, but that's the price of having a parking lot for rail cars right across someone's farm.
Driving around the small farming towns near the train, we pass a convenience store with signs in the window: cold drinks, hot dogs, drive-thru beer. Has a nice cadence to it. But it cannot compete with the store we saw in Maine, a true classic, with its wonderfully expressive and culturally sensitive sign: Beer, Guns, Wedding Dresses. But I digress.
The fields around these towns are filled with dunno what, our yankee ignorance showing through, a plant about four feet high. The bottom three feet look just like corn, clearly a grass family plant, same sorts of leaves, but all stop at the same height. On top is a single foot high finial of seeds, twelve inches long, three inches in diameter at the bottom, pointing straight up, tapered at both ends, sort of a large, nubbly, brown cucumber. Hundreds, maybe thousands of brown, slightly reddish seeds. Not corn, pretty clearly: this is not an ear, and there's only one, just one big bunch of seeds, all stuck together now, but they will part and sway in the breeze soon enough. We guess. Maize? No, we think that that grows like corn, in ears and multiple ears per stalk. Barley? Millet? Neither of us is sufficiently countrified to know what these look like. Wheat and oats and alfalfa we've seen, but not the more exotic grains.
When I say they're all the same size, I really mean within a few inches. Leaves stop at three feet, topped with these giant seed pods, all but maybe one plant in a thousand. Look over a couple acres of this plant, and there are a handful of mutants, maybe two-three, that put up a tall, skinny shoot maybe eight feet up, with a small seed tassel on the top. Or maybe there's just one lonely yucca plant in the middle of the field crying out for attention. They -- the yuccas -- bloomed a few weeks ago and driving down the road, you really notice how common the plant is because of the shoots. Even small yuccas that you'd never notice among the grasses on the side of the road put up six to eight foot stalks for their flowers.
Back to the mystery crop. Turns out it's sorghum. Heard of it, but never seen it before. It isn't grown up in the Middle Atlantic states or New England, so we have no idea. I ask some of the local boys at work, especially the Aggies, and they pin it down as grain sorghum, a very popular crop. I have pictures, which I will include. The huge tassel of seeds does get loose and wave in the breeze when fully ripe, and I guess the seeds get eaten and scattered. Most of the pictures on the web were not that similar to the plants and fields that we saw, but the grower's association has a logo that is remarkably like the plants at just this stage of development (end of July).
BTW, the term "maize," one of the Aggies informs me, is often used as a general term for many grain crops. If it's some sort of grain, but doesn't look like wheat, call it maize.
In any case, one wonders about the genetic diversity of these crop plants if the fields are so uniform, with just the occasional mutant. Let's hope, for the sake of cows everywhere, that whatever narrow hybrid these seeds are from is resistant to all the diseases and pests for the next couple decades.
Much of the sorghum is planted in straight rows, or slightly curved, that stand out when you look at them from the car. Rows of brown-orange heads alternating with rows of yellow-green leaves. If you're driving at moderate speed, there's a stroboscopic effect of the flashing rows, the leaves being much brighter than the seeds. Hypnotic to watch. In the afternoon sun, the leaves are shiny, almost glow. And in the late summer in central Texas, there is nothing but sun. Bright rows of leaves, bordered by dark rows of seeds, white stripes converging into the distance to a vanishing point right on the horizon. If you're lucky, a stand of trees gets in the way, disturbs the geometric almost perfection of the striped landscape in perspective meeting the featureless sky in a straight, flat line.
Copyright (C) 2000, 2001, 2002, Richard Ball Landau. All rights reserved.