Have you ever noticed the circular motion of life? I know, that’s pretty deep for a mere mystery writer, especially one like me who is often stumped by things like why we shouldn’t put tomatoes in the refrigerator. But the whole idea of coincidence, irony, and what goes around comes around did strike me recently.
Picture this: I’m a twenty-one-year-old new bride, sitting on an International M tractor—one without a sun shade, which is okay because this is back in the day when we all wanted to be as tan as gila monsters. I’m raking alfalfa into windrows with the side-delivery rakes attached to the back.
I wasn’t raised on a farm or ranch, don’t know squat about tractors or haying, and, in fact, scored in the 4th percentile in mechanical aptitude tests. And yet, my dear husband—bless his heart—plopped me on this tractor and left me alone in the hayfield, six miles from home, when cell phones are the stuff of Dick Tracy and science fiction.
I don’t know how many of you have ever raked hay on a center pivot in a field the size of the Mediterranean Sea, but it’s a boring job. You drive between two flat rows of cut hay and the rakes scoop them together into a knee-high ridge, called a windrow. A big tractor—the one my husband drives, with a/c and a radio—comes along later and sucks up the windrow and forms it into bales that it spits out onto the field. But me, I just drive back and forth, back and forth, in the hot Nebraska sun, hour after hour.
To pass the time, I start telling myself stories. Basically, I’m spinning tales of daring and adventure because I’m driving a tractor and can’t read them. Again, no one ever thought of Pandora, earbuds, or The Moth Radio Hour back then. So this day, alone on my tractor for a few hours, I’m weaving a particularly steamy tale of a woman who inherits a vineyard in France and goes to claim it from the handsome, broad-shouldered man who thinks he’d inherited it. Not all of my sweat is from the sun.
I turn the tractor at the end of the row, line it up and start up the next, still immersed in my personal bodice-ripping novel, and that’s when I notice my husband racing his pickup toward me. I push the clutch, a job that requires me to pull against the steering wheel and brace my left leg on the floor and press with all my might. This tractor is older than my grandmother and way crankier.
My husband rolls down his window, and I imagine the cool air-conditioned air billowing out with his hollering. I make out something like, “What the hell are you doing?”
Flummoxed, because in the few hours I’ve been left alone out here, I’ve managed to rake up quite a bit of hay, I shrug. But while he’s still tantruming, I turn to look behind me—then to the section of land I’d been over.
About a quarter of a mile away from me, the side-delivery rakes sit, abandoned at the top of a row, the tongue of the hitch pointing in the air.
Damn. That’s what a great book is supposed to do. Carry you so far away from your ordinary world you don’t even notice the rakes come unhitched.
So here’s where the circular part comes in. Back then, I used to imagine books while I lived on a cattle ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills. Now, I live in Tucson, surrounded by desert, mountains, and a pool, and instead of imagining, I actually write books set in the Sandhills.
That’s about as deep as it gets here, folks.
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Shannon Baker lived for twenty years in the Nebraska Sandhills, where cattle outnumber people by more than 50 to 1. Baker was named the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers 2014 Writer of the Year. She now makes her home in sunny Tucson. She is the author of Tainted Mountain, Tattered Legacy, and Broken Trust, among other books.