The road fronting our farm crests to a small hump in front of the house and then slopes sharply down past the barn and its semicircular drive before ascending a gentler rise. This topography is hardly worth mentioning except to say that it's impossible to see from the barn drive what's coming over that hump until it's almost upon you – thus, pulling out from there is always a bit unnerving.
It's more a matter of ear than eye. In our pickup truck, we can generally tell whether the coast is clear, but the sound of a tractor's engine drowns out any oncoming traffic.
Over the years we ran our commercial dairy, we never saw or caused an accident, not even when we set sail up the road in a slow, ponderous procession of tractor, bailer, and hay wagon.
That's not to say there weren't some spectacular brakings – generally by speeders who ignored the caution signs bracketing the property.
One morning we were witnesses as a vehicle of teenage boys crested the rise – all but airborne – just as a milk truck eased onto the road after draining our tank.
The car of goggle-eyed young men swung to the opposite lane and out of control. Fortunately there was no oncoming traffic, and the vehicle came safely to a stop after plowing up a curling wave of sod and grass along the verge. The four occupants who spilled out on wobbling legs developed an instant respect for our little hump of road – we never saw them take it on like that again.
After that, we would stand on the crest and check for traffic before waving the tank driver on his way.
When some workers left a few orange traffic cones by our house after repaving a section of the road, we set them aside under our row of white pines, thinking we could use them one day. Sure enough, one morning our cows sallied out through a gate I'd distractedly left open after milking. When the first car to crest the rise braked (loudly) to avoid hitting one, we raced to set out the cones, then ran for grain buckets to lure the animals back as a growing number of vehicles waited in line behind the barriers.
The screen door of the milking parlor frames the traffic whizzing by the barn, and many a friend would wave in passing when we and the cows were in there mornings and evenings.
Most passersby appreciated that this was no place to slow appreciably – who knew what was heading over the hump behind them? These were truncated and somewhat blurred greetings that we returned when our hands were free.
One older couple, though, drove me to distraction by regularly slowing to a crawl or, worse, stopping altogether opposite the door to stare in, smiling. They seemed to enjoy the ambience and rhythms of our operation. I'd look up and there they'd be, grinning at the sight of me seated by a cow serenely letting down her milk.
I'd rush to tell them, wildly gesticulating with a dripping udder sponge, to pull in or move on before another car rear-ended theirs. They'd be welcome to sit on a couple of buckets and watch. Why, they could milk a cow if they'd like. I communicated all this with sweeping gestures en route to the door, but as I stepped outside to actually talk to them, they'd shyly and oh, so slowly move on, still smiling.
Never once did another vehicle crest the hump while they idled below. As guardian angels go, theirs was a fine one.
We haven't had to monitor traffic for the tanker truck for the seven years since we stopped commercial milking. But we still keep a few cows, and we began to think recently of buying a draft horse to help haul firewood and to keep Ben, our retired Percheron, company. An Amish auction recently provided the opportunity. Once there, I fell for Buck, a big blond Belgian crossbred, who, according to the plain-clad farmer entering retirement, "works well anyplace."
And so I stood on the road the other day, checking oncoming traffic as the truck and trailer delivered the 2,000-pound gelding and exited empty from the barn drive.
Buck spent his first night here in a stalled section of the barn firmly gated from the drive and thrumming traffic. It must have been something of a shock to the horse, used to working in the fields and watching others of his ilk pull buggies along a vastly quieter country lane.
Ben stood with him all that night, hanging his head over the half wall between them to commune. Our horse may have assured Buck that the swift creatures sailing by weren't so bad most of the time – that from the back pasture he'd show him the next day, you could put that road completely out of mind.
We often do just that ourselves.