When author and city-slicker Deb Elkink fell in love and married an introverted cowboy, she moved from her bright lights to his isolated cattle ranch far off in the prairie grasslands. Still—between learning to pilot a light aircraft, sewing for a costume rental store, and cooking for branding crews of a hundred—Deb graduated with a B.A. in Communications from Bethel University in St. Paul, MN; she also holds an M.A. in Theology (both summa cum laude). Her award-winning debut novel, THE THIRD GRACE, is set in the contrasting locales of Parisian street and Nebraskan farmyard, and incorporates Greek mythology and aesthetics with the personal search for self. Her writing has been described as “layered and sumptuous,” “compelling,” and “satisfying.”
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Off the Grid: Dos and Don’ts for City-Slickers
Are you planning a day trip to the countryside or visiting a farm? Don’t go unprepared.
I was a bred-in-the-bone uptown city girl, attended a large Canadian high school, studied in the Twin Cities, shopped in San Francisco, and fearlessly strolled Tokyo’s Ginza at midnight. All the while I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the difference between a heifer and a Hereford. So when I transplanted myself upon marriage to a remote cattle ranch in the Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan, I learned to survive the hard way. To save you other urbanites my pain, I’ve recorded the unwritten rules for city-slickers on the homestead.
- Do watch your step.Of course, I mean more than taking care over where to place your high-heeled sandal when debarking the car—although it bears reminding that mammals and poultry, with their varying quantities of excrement, might have free run of the yard. No, I mean that you need to watch carefully and imitate how the farmers do what they do: When they whisper, don’t shout or you’ll scare the bull; when they run, you run. I remember the sport introduced to me on my first visit to the ranch—shooting birdies in the barn. I held back the tears as the sparrows fell one by one, but got over it quickly when I realized I was a natural dead-eye—the first “athletic” endeavor I’d ever aced!
- Don’t glamorize.Maybe you’re a starry-eyed, tender-hearted, pesticide-free, agrarian-wanna-be who’s always dreamed of having a few acres and a cow so that you can live independently off the land. Get over it, at least for the day you’re visiting the farm. You can go back to buying cello-wrapped carrots from the natural-food market in the mall tomorrow; for today, when grandma asks you out to the garden to dust the cabbages (she means kill the cutworms), don’t forget to use bug spray on your own skin. Out in the country, it’s eat or be eaten.
- Do eat what’s put before you. This might seem common courtesy, but in our age of macrobiotic ovo-lacto-vegetarianism (with gluten sensitivities thrown in), remember that farmers in economic servitude to low food prices tend to be intolerant towards finicky diners. Sometimes it’s best not to ask your host what you’re eating, but just assume it’s edible. If you turn up your nose at the plate of turkey with bread stuffing swimming in gravy, for example, they’ll likely get even. On our ranch, a regular revenge menu item was battered and fried “prairie oysters,” and I’m not talking seafood. They have a rather “nutty” flavour.
- Don’t wear silk (or nail polish). Of course you’ll know better than I did that first time I went out to the ranch. My future mother-in-law had just churned the butter (seriously—some people still do this!) and asked me to knead out all the buttermilk, then pack the butter into one of those antique wooden molds. When I was done, my nicely lacquered nails were very patchy and my future father-in-law buttered his toast with flecks of brilliant red. Which matched my cheeks.
- Do admit your citified inexperience.Country folk tend to put you to the test if you brag about your superior life knowledge. One smug visitor to our ranch swaggered when he boasted that he could easily wrastle a 130-pound calf to the ground and keep it immobilized while a red-hot branding iron seared its side. Funny how that guy ended up with a burn of his own through his designer jeans. I’m not saying this torture was planned, but I’m just sayin’ . . .
- Don’t assume their rural ignorance. Look, my husband (now two decades off the ranch and just as successful in other pursuits) still wears patched denim when he pops into the city for groceries. It’s a mark of his status. Most rural folk aren’t known for their high style (even if their wives might be), but it’s a mistake to assume this means they’re uneducated or sheltered from culture. Although we now no longer keep livestock ourselves, we’re surrounded by working farmers and ranchers who—like us—travel internationally, study academically, work professionally, and think critically.
- Do stay out of the way and listen to instruction.All kidding aside, agriculture is serious business and you can get hurt if you don’t pay attention. Have you ever noticed how many cowboys are missing thumbs from getting tangled up while roping a calf? One of our neighbors smothered to death in a grain bin. The bucolic life is fraught with inherent danger, so do what I do when I’m unsure of procedure—watch from the other side of a glass window.
- Don’t bring your yappy city dog along to the country. This is my husband’s contribution to the blog post. He recallsguestswho found it cute when their Fifi barked the chickens into consternation or scared the milk cow into kicking over her bucket. In addition to the danger of your host farmer’s murderous responses, your pet might come to a nasty country end on the talons of an eager eagle. Be warned!
- Do carry your own toilet paper. I know, it sounds ridiculous in this day and age. But if you go for the requisite horseback ride out in the hills, don’t assume that your host has been thoughtful enough to pack tissue—as can be confirmed by my traumatized brother, now a university prof in a high-ranking business school down east. His summer endurance test as a tender 14-year-old city lad on the ranch culminated in his rounding up the herd behind the real cowboys. When nature inevitably called,he resortedto using a two-inch-square remnant of orange shag carpet dug up from the bottom of a saddlebag to do the dirty work. It troubles him to this day.