I squirm around in the black leather seat, searching for just the right position where my back and hips don’t ache. My workday started at 7:00 am, and my forty-something body isn’t used to sitting in a grain truck seat, racing back and forth all day between field and grain elevator. The digital clock on the dashboard reads 6:54 pm, but it’s the dead of summer in Idaho, and the heat continues to hang in the air. A small trickle of sweat meanders its way down my neck, and I lean back to stop it, my shirt absorbing it and making a tiny wet spot on my collar. Ick. I rub from side to side in the seat, trying to itch away the irritating prickle on my back created by a light layer of wheat dust that always finds it’s way onto my skin, even under my shirt and in my socks.
I look down distastefully at my thick, cotton socks and bulky tennis shoes and realize my toes are sweaty soggy inside them. I hate wearing tennis shoes and socks in the heat of summer, but Dad frowns upon flip-flops. This is his office, and a dress code is strongly suggested for safety—damn comfort, coolness, and fashion. He’s right, though. I remember every time I scooted out across a stubble field as a kid wearing shorts and flip-flops, my shins and feet received the brunt of the freshly cut stalks of wheat or barley, their sharp edges digging in and leaving thin bloody streaks trickling on my sun-kissed skin. As an adult, I know better than to tempt fate. Yes, I’ve become practical.
Finally, a soft breeze with a slight coolness to it wafts through the open windows of my truck, and I breathe it in. The thick smell of the season brings thousands of memories from past harvests flickering through my brain.
The smell of fresh-cut grain is distinct. There’s a touch of dust, a dash of chaff, and a pinch of dried grass. It’s a unique mixture, and one I’ve never smelled anywhere else but in the grain fields. Small pockets of fresher air sneak in my truck cab occasionally, and I breathe deep again, knowing it’s full of nothing but natural pollutants.
Harvest is a tactile experience, tickling and teasing all of your senses, luring them to come out and play. It never disappoints, the sights, smells, sounds—even the taste. As kids, my sister, brother, and I would spend an inordinate amount of time furiously chewing wheat kernels to see which one of us could make a starchy gum. If you set your mind to it, you do, in fact, end up with wheat gum, a gritty, nearly tasteless mass of goo.
I smile at the memory and look to see my brother cutting on the distant hillside, slowly and methodically making his way through the tall stands of wheat. The combine leaves behind wide ribbons of alternating light and dark, reflecting the back and forth of his chosen pattern for this particular field. He slowly disappears behind the swell of the hill. I feel alone with him out of sight. We’re miles away from the main road, the nearest house at least three hills to the east.
Suddenly, I realize it’s so quiet it’s noticeable. But then, the buzz of a fat bumblebee bouncing around low to the ground begins to fill the air. Pieces of stubble make subtle pops and cracks, finally drying completely now that the head bursting with wheat berries is gone, sliced off clean by the big red combine’s razor-sharp sickles.
To some, the abundant seas of wheat fields may appear dried, withered, dead. But those golden, brittle shafts boast seeds of nutrition. Seeds of life. A friend commented one time that she hated late summer/early fall on the Palouse because “everything looks dried up and dead.” Being the proud farmer’s daughter, I piped up and engaged her in a spirited conversation. “How can you see that enormous expanse of golden wheat as dead? Don’t you get this is where the phrase ‘amber waves of grain’ came from?” She immediately retreated from her comments, possibly because of my passionate tone, but maybe because she’d never actually seen the wheat fields in that way.
I stretch, feeling tired, but a good kind of tired. It’s hard-work tired. It’s satisfying tired, being part of something important, something bigger than me, the wheat offering meals to families across the nation and world. There’s also a tinge of nostalgia mixed with that tired. I miss my childhood, riding in the truck with my mom, and watching my dad do precisely what my brother is doing right now.
I close my eyes and drift back to my younger years, when summers lasted forever, and harvest was like an extended holiday, the air filled with excitement.
The first thing that pops into my head is riding in the combine. It was like hitting the lottery, breaking up the bouts of riding and waiting in the truck with Mom. Dad would ease around the truck to dump his load of beautiful wheat or barley and ask if I wanted a ride. Of course, this was usually after my sister and brother had their rides—as the youngest I was typically last. But it didn’t matter. It was finally MY turn! Dad would hoist me up to the bottom rung on the metal ladder that loomed up to the cab. I had to be careful going up; one wrong move and a shin sliding down a step could cause quite a bloody gash, especially if I happened to be breaking dress-code and wearing shorts. After successfully climbing the ladder, I’d scramble into the small area in the combine cab between the seat where my dad sat and the huge window. It was cramped but offered the best view. However, that view came at a price. The mechanics housed under the metal plate I sat on created heat, and as Dad made his rounds, the metal got warmer and warmer. After a while, my butt would get so hot I’d be forced to start squirming. I hope Dad knew I was fussing around because my derriere was sizzling and not because I was bored.
Toasty buns or not, I loved riding in the combine. The whir of the massive machine and the constant turning of the expansive reel mesmerized me. As we made our way around the dips and swells of the rolling hills, I’d see the pieces of land not visible from the road, the pieces tucked away and only accessible by farm equipment or trucks. I felt like we were out in the middle of nowhere. It was quite the adventure, conquering the land. But fear sometimes crept in when the combine’s leveler compensated for a steep patch. I worried we would start to slide, but we never did. Dad’s superpowers kept us safe. All too soon, the bulk tank would fill with rich kernels of grain, and we’d head back to the truck to dump. The ride was over, always making me a bit remiss, but thankful I could cool off my gluteus maximus.
When the combine purged every last kernel, Dad would start cutting again, leaving my siblings and me with Mom for the next phase of the cycle, the trek to the grain elevator. With windows down and the summer-heated breeze blowing our hair every-which-way, we’d journey to the enormous, steel structure to deposit our goods. Riding in the truck with Mom was yet another adventure. I marveled at how she could split-shift and maneuver the big truck into the seemingly tiny garage-like opening at the elevator. Sometimes we’d have to wait in line behind other trucks. Mom always knew the drivers, some were other farm wives, some semi-retired Grandpas, some high school kids. It was a social circle of sorts, but you never dallied around when it was your turn to pull the truck into dump. The urgency to return to the field to get another load pressed hard, keeping the chit-chat and gossip to a minimum.
When it was our turn, Mom would ease the truck into the bowels of the elevator and expertly settle the front tires on the scale. Sometimes she would give us the ok to get out of the truck. The three of us would scramble out—careful to avoid touching the scales—and watch as the elevator employee weighed the truck ever so carefully. He would then open the back hatch to release the mounds of grain into the hole below. There were pipes acting as a grate so he could walk around behind the truck, and if you looked between the pipes, it seemed like a dark abyss where the grain flowed down into oblivion, also ominously known as The Pit. Mom would get in the truck and hoist the bed up, letting gravity pull the load out over the pipes and down, down, down. The elevator employee would yell for her to stop and take a shovel to clean out the corners of the truck. Then Mom lowered the bed of the truck back to level. The elevator employee would sweep any rogue kernels into the hole and then weigh the empty truck. Mom would get out and wait for him to write down the empty weight. It was at that moment she’d give us “the look” (one of many in her arsenal of non-verbal cues) telling us to scamper back into the truck.
Then came the return journey to the field. It always seemed like we flew back, probably because we were lighter after depositing our load. I suppose Mom went the same speed, but as a kid, it felt faster getting to the field from the elevator than to the elevator from the field.
A loud stomach growl startles me out of my reverie back to the present. I find my hunger ironic as I’m nestled in the rolling hills covered with wheat, barley, peas, and lentils—the breadbasket of the world. But, because it’s getting late, and all I ate for lunch was a sandwich and some fruit, I’m anxious for my brother to come back around to dump.
Once he deposits his load of grain, my truck will be full, signaling the end of my day. I’ll drive it back to Mom and Dad’s, nestle it carefully in the shed, and head in for dinner and bed. The loaded truck will be ready to dump first thing in the morning at the elevator, just like I did this morning and will continue to do daily until every last kernel is scooped out of the fields, and the crop is buttoned up for another year. Just like my Dad and Mom—and now brother—have done every summer, every year.
Slowly, the familiar and comforting whir of the combine increases in volume as my brother maneuvers back into view. The shadows are long, and darkness begins to settle, first in the low draws, then inching up the hills until dusk covers the entire landscape. In a last fit of glory, the sky blazes a beautiful combination of periwinkle, purple, and navy tinged with pink and orange. My brother is journeying back to my truck. He’s full.
The combine’s external lights flick on to illuminate his way, a true sign of his determination to finish this field regardless what time the clock says. A growing sliver of a harvest moon shows itself behind the combine, ready to rise a
nd offer a light of its own. I almost get a lump in my throat watching my brother lumber the combine toward me
. I wouldn’t trade growing up on the farm for anything. I bet my parents and siblings feel the same. I’m honored to help this particular summer as a truck driver, long since removed from my childhood days on the farm, but never far from the roots that made me who I am.
This land and life are filled with lessons and riddled with adventure if you’re open to them. The continuous cycle of working the ground, planting the seeds, tending to weeds, and outsmarting pests culminates in this grand labor of love.
This is my favorite time of year. This is harvest.
Temple Kinyon grew up on a wheat farm in Potlatch, Idaho. Her parents, brother, and sister-in-law still farm the ground that has been in her family since 1906.