The Hands that Feed America

Looking back on our travels, it’s easy to just remember the eyeballs. Smiling eyes of a new friendship on the road. Blood shot eyes of late night encounters. Eyes worn dull by time. Eyes sharpened by experience.

Texas rancher's hand. It was one of thousands I've shaken traveling the country with mules and wagons. (Tulia, TX)
Texas rancher’s hand. It was one of thousands I’ve shaken traveling the country with mules and wagons. (Tulia, TX)

It’s easy to overlook the hands.

The wagon voyage behind the Lost Sea Expedition series took me right down the Great Plains, from Canada to Mexico.  In the 1950, textbooks still referred to much of this land as the American Sahara. More recently, hurried motorist and folks that don’t know better call them the Drive Through States.

It’s also part of the Grain Belt.

If you think in terms of where this country’s calories come from, this would be the wide base of the caloric pyramid. Think corn, milo, wheat, soybeans, wheat, oats and peas. Much of this goes to the table. Even more gets run through cows and pigs and gets turned in to milk, beef, pork chops and bacon.

It’s hard, physical country and marks people from their eyes to their hands – especially their hands.

Polly takes a lunch break on her way across America.
Polly takes a lunch break on her way across America. All the filming gear used in the Lost Sea Expedition TV series was carried in her wagon. (outside Antelope, MT)

One day, Polly and I took a lunch break at the grain elevator in Tokio, Texas.  This cheered Polly immensely as she had her choice of millions of pounds of milo. Milo, a close relative to sorghum, is used by feed lots to fatten cattle and bio fuel plants to produce fuel.  To Polly, it looked like a million pound buffet.

Polly samples the million pound buffet
Polly samples the million pound buffet

After Polly ate her fill, I visited with employees Manual Cantu and Daniel Christensen. They were in the break room finishing their lunch. They told me from October to November, they weigh and unload the grain trucks that bring milo grain to the elevator. There, it gets reloaded on other trucks that haul it to nearby cattle feed lots.

Manual Cantu
Manual Cantu
Daniel Christensen
Daniel Christensen

We finished our lunches. I got up to leave and shook their hands by the door. There fingers felt bent, twisted, gnarled and rough. Like roots that had been broken, grown back, been broken again and healed a little more bent than last time.

When they let my hand go, I saw why. The bones in their fingers were out of line, the veins ropy. “The hands of a working man” Daniel called them.
I fired up my voice recorder to get the story.  Maybe I’ll play it for you one day.

Manual and Daniel went back to work. Polly and I walked West.

The hands that feed America
Manual and Daniel’s hands

I still think of Manual and Daniel and their hands from time to time. I’d like to shake their hands again. They really were the hands that feed America.

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