Sunday, September 14, 2008 By Aaron Brown
By Aaron J. Brown
That’s what my wife and I say to each other when we pass hay bales along the highway. The idea is to dupe the other person into saying “What?” Over time, the game has come to demand high level acting skill, ranging from “HAY!” to the much more subtle “hay?” This is the lighter side of a season where everything dies and winter is coming.
For me, growing up in the Cherry area, seeing hay bales in September was as common as mine dumps or lakes around the rest of the Range. Something my mom told me when I was little changed the mental image I have of hay. With me buckled up safely in the back seat, she told me and my sisters that the hay bales we see in the fields were alive. They would move silently, slowly toward the highway, she said. Each time we passed a hay field the bales would be just a few inches closer to the road. One day, maybe soon, a hay monster would jump up on the highway and “get us.”
My perception of this story has changed over time, much like the seasons. At first the natural reaction was an irrational childhood fear of hay bales. Later, I wondered why mom would say this. This really puzzled me for a long time. Sure, I got over my fear of hay bales. (Our high school class picture was taken in front of a pile of hay bales and I was fine). But that didn’t explain anything … until I had kids. I caught myself the other day starting to tell our three boys about the hay monsters during a drive in the family van. I refrained. I should wait, I thought, for his cognitive abilities to develop just a little more so that he’ll be really scared of hay bales. Why? You know, it’s just fun. I guess that’s all. But maybe it’s because, subconsciously, I want to teach my boys that what seems to be isn’t always what is.
Like a lot of northern Minnesotans, my drive to work takes some time. A drive like mine lets you see the way things are. Today, the roadside shows much more than benign hay bales. We modern people absorb a lot of information from our TVs and the Internet, but the truth can be found along the road. When boats, trailers, RVs, campers, ATVs and trucks are being sold in front of every other country home on the Iron Range, things are tightening up. We Iron Rangers don’t talk about it. We don’t go on CNN to complain. But there it is.
The pages of Iron Range newspapers and the headlines of local TV news tell us about potential growth in the region, much of it very encouraging. But these stories are always told in the future tense, with words like “would,” “should” and “could.” The present tense is much more troubling. Today I saw three boats, four campers and several cars for sale out along the highway. I noticed many houses for sale in which the owner has changed real estate agencies more than once, for lack of a buyer. I also see more and more “for sale by owner” signs as people try to collect lost equity in homes that are worth less.
When I get to town, the grocery store sells the items on my shopping list – milk, bananas and bread – at prices 50 percent higher than just two years ago, sometimes double. I stop at the gas station on my way home where an attendant offers me a great deal if I sign up for a gas card.
The deal? $3 a gallon gas. “Wow,” I say. “That’s a pretty good deal.” It is, I guess, but I still decline and note to myself that people were outraged when gas prices hit $3 just a year ago. Just as a child strapped in a car seat would fear a slow moving but relentless hay bale, we now feel a sense of helplessness as hard-earned wages remain stagnant in the face of rising prices and an uncertain future.
And while hay monsters are not real, our problems are. They show along our roads and streets.
These monsters need slaying.
Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him or read more at his blog, MinnesotaBrown.com. His new book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” will be released next month.