The hazards of agri-driving

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My daily drive from home to the Dairy Star office in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and back should be about 30 minutes one way. However, commute time stretched to 45 minutes for much of summer and into fall due to road construction. The rough winter had turned that stretch of freeway into a series of potholes and coughed-up chunks of wrecked road. Repairs had been sorely needed.

That does not mean that I didn’t resent the inconvenience. Patience is not one of my strong suits.

My husband, Mark — as an ex-dairy farmer and current conservation manager through Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District — is a slower driver than I am. Yes, there is a clear cause-and-effect relationship between level of agricultural involvement and speed of driving. If the former is higher, the latter is lower. However, there are other traits exhibited by people who drive under the influence of agriculture. 

When Mark and I started dating over 30 years ago, he and his brother were working toward taking over their family’s dairy farm. During times that Mark was driving me through anyplace rural, I noticed his tendency toward watching scenes of agriculture taking place in equal measure to actually watching the road. I came to realize he was one of a large group of agri-drivers with a similar problem.

While we were in the dating phase and I didn’t want to show the true nature of my impatience, I would remain silent while gripping the passenger door handle and holding my breath as the car would inch closer and closer to the side of the road. Mark would be looking at the fields beyond and saying things like, “That guy’s growing erosion over there,” or “Those are some beautiful soybeans.”

At the last second, just before what seemed like a certain plummet down to the bottom of the ditch, he’d jerk the car back into place. If the shoulder of the road wasn’t paved, sometimes the tires hitting the gravel was enough to knock him back into focus. Otherwise, it was sheer luck that he always noticed in time and I am still here today to write this column.

Mark tended to scan the agriculture taking place to his right, so I don’t recall crossing into lanes of oncoming traffic. I’ve heard that can be a symptom demonstrated by left-side-favoring agri-drivers, creating even more stress for their passengers. Luckily for me, Mark favored his right side.

About a year after we met — when I was certain Mark was wildly, madly in love with me — I started speaking up.

“Watch out, Mark,” I’d say. Or, if more agitated, I’d shout, “The road! The road!”

Often, he denied he had been drifting off course, but the thundering of my frantic heartbeats said otherwise. 

When we had been married awhile, I began intensifying my comments, sometimes using an understandably harsh tone. Afterall, should we slip into the ditch, the side of the car to hit the tree, the mailbox, the fence post or the unsuspecting cow would be mine. I also began fiercely debating him when he claimed I was being a bit paranoid.

Then came the best idea since the dawn of mankind — the rumble strip. As tires passed over the strips, both audible and tactile jolts threw distracted motorists back into alert. Across rural America, those married to agri-drivers wept tears of relief.

The middle-of-the-road rumble strips came first, stopping agri-drivers from coasting over center lines. After that came the shoulder rumble strip, which was even better for my situation.

Today, lesser-traveled roads do not always have shoulder rumble strips, but most roads do, so driving with Mark has become argument-free — at least as far as driving habits go.

In years to come, when the history of road paving is written — which is sure to happen as people everywhere will demand it — the dawn of the rumble strip will be credited with rekindling the romance of Sunday drives and possibly saving a number of marriages.

I must admit, though, due to my slower speed of travel that road construction demanded of me the last few months, I observed more thoroughly the sights of farms and fields I passed to and from work. 

For instance, as Dairy Star reported on the drought in our readership area, I noticed farmers doing more corn chopping than usual because their crop had failed to thrive and was past any hope for improvement. I saw cattle on sparse pasture whose features were obscured by the smoke of Canadian wildfires, and I wondered if their health was being affected. 

One day, as I drove in the newly paved right lane in a slow convoy because the left lane was closed, I saw in a field to my right that a large bird was sitting on the back of a steer, who didn’t seem to mind giving his visitor a ride. The bird was there for a few seconds and then hopped off to the far side of the steer and out of sight.  

It was then that my car slipped off the edge of the road and my right tires thumped down to the unfinished shoulder. I side-brushed an orange and white construction barrel that was sitting there unused, but the thing managed to stay upright. I was relieved that I had been driving at the posted reduced speed and was able to jerk the car back in line before it was too late. 

I was even more relieved that Mark was not in the passenger seat.

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