Between the Rows: Menagerie of Memory

Nostalgia’s invaluable role in the potato industry

Published online: May 04, 2018 Articles
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Sixty miles out, they’re barely visible—just a smudge on the horizon. If you’re not looking for them, you don’t notice them as they blend into the sky. Most folks probably don’t even turn to glance their way as they speed across the high desert country. But every time I drive on I-84 across southern Idaho—from either the east or the west—I keep my eyes peeled until, finally, there they are, rising up out of the plain: my mountains.

The Albion Mountains are a mini-range that only stretch about 45 miles from Declo, Idaho, south to the Utah border. They are relatively inconspicuous, lacking the distinctive jagged peaks of the Sawtooths to the north or the Tetons to the east. Their three highest peaks—Cache, Independence and Harrison—sport fairly roundish pinnacles, making it difficult to determine exactly where each one’s highest point is. The range houses only a single tiny ski resort, Pomerelle, with two chairlifts on the eastern face of Mount Harrison. Let me tell you, though: Those hills are amazing.

My folks still call the western foothills of the Albion Range home. And while I myself haven’t lived in their shadow for over a decade, they are still my mountains. Because every time they come into view, whether I’m stopping there or not, those mountains never fail to open the floodgates of my memory.  

Somewhere deep inside everyone’s subconscious mind reside myriad memories, the vast majority lying in hibernation until, like mental smelling salts, some small trigger drags them to the fore again. Music is probably the most prevalent memory joggers. We’ve all got a song or 10 associated with particular pictures in our minds. Roy Rogers’s “Happy Trails”; Colbie Caillat’s “Brighter Than the Sun”; Bryan Adams’s “Everything I Do”; Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”; and anything sung by George Strait each dredges up specific moments from my past—some sweet, some bitter and some a little bit both.

However, it’s often something much simpler than a musical composition that brings on the nostalgia. The split-second it takes a vibration to travel from the eardrum to the brain can hold a truckload of memories. The sound doesn’t have to be much: the squeak of sneakers on a hardwood floor; the clink as you switch the old gas pump behind the shop to “on”; the quick, ever-so-faint and always satisfying pssssh as you pump the ether button a couple times to prime the old tractor. The laugh track on a Cheers rerun. The cheery, two-note whistle of a chickadee just as the eastern horizon starts turning gray-gold. The rhythmic, harmonious cacophony of a potato digger running full-bore. They’re all nothing more or less than a song of sentimentality.

Of course, the other senses elicit those memories, too. The ol’ olfactories make a withdrawal from the memory bank every time they get a whiff of diesel at a Maverik or blossoming lilacs in someone’s backyard. The artificially tropical smell of that gritty and always effective orange Gojo hand soap; fresh-cut hay; rain on sagebrush; the cool-yet-warm, earthy, distinctly potato-y aroma of a freshly dug crop stacked high in the cellar at the end of harvest—they all have a way of somehow getting tied together in a guy’s mind. So are the cool feel of 3-inch aluminum pipe in your hands on a 90-degree day, and the sights of muddy little rivulets running down your arms as you wash up at the end of a 17-hour work day.

There is doubtless a headstone somewhere in potato country bearing the inscription “He grew Burbanks,” the resident having stubbornly and successfully fended off the onslaughts of all these newfangled varieties, because “Burbanks have always been good to us.” And if you can keep a farm profitable while holding on to some of the things Dad and Grandpa did, more power to you; there is incalculable value in doing some things for old times’ sake, even if it seems illogical to everyone else.

Without a doubt, agriculture is at the forefront of innovation and technology. You don’t find a way to feed more people while utilizing waaaaaaaay less land by refusing to adapt. But in every grower’s heart of hearts, nostalgia is the driving force. Whether it’s the nostalgia he feels for his own past or that he hopes his kids feel 10 or 20 years from now, that tangled, messy, beautiful knot of memory keeps him ticking, waking up early every morning as tired joints protest.

Then, from the lilac tree in the backyard, a chickadee whistles, filling him with optimism, and he heads out the door for another day of memory making.