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An Amish Snowboarder
By: Ed Colby

My gal Marilyn is such a schemer. I told her, “The Medina County beekeepers want to fly me to Ohio to give a talk.”

“Fly you?” she shot back. “What am I supposed to do? Stay home and feed the chickens?”

Twenty-four hours later she had a plan. “Look, let’s take a train trip. We’ll get an eight-stop, 15-day Amtrak pass. We can get off in Cleveland for your talk. Whatever it would have cost them in airfare, have them just give you the money, and we’ll use it for train tickets.”

I told you she’s a schemer.

In October we boarded in Grand Junction, Colorado. The California Zephyr comes right up the Colorado River valley past our house. You can see it from the train. When I caught a glimpse of my big New Castle bee yard, I momentarily panicked and wondered if I’d turned on the solar electric bear fence.

We got off in Glenwood Springs to stretch our legs, and the conductor warned us to stay on the platform. After a few minutes, Marilyn said, “I’ll be right back,” and disappeared.

I thought nothing of it and went back to the observation car. When the train left the station, I didn’t see Marilyn, but she can take care of herself, right? At first I didn’t worry.  I had her cell phone. But after a few minutes, I headed back to our coach seats, just to be sure. I asked the woman across the aisle. No Marilyn. I checked downstairs.

When I approached the conductor, he lectured me about staying on the platform during “smoke break” stops. Lectured me! About then a helpful assistant conductor cut into his harangue and offered to make a PA announcement.

“We have a missing passenger. Marilyn Gleason, please check in with your traveling companion in the observation car,” she announced. The train instantly pulsed with excitement. A passenger left behind?! I tried to stay calm as I wondered how I’d kill a day in Denver waiting for Marilyn to catch up. Everybody was looking at me.

A minute later when Marilyn showed up beet-red, the observation car broke into applause. She’d made a new friend in another car, that’s all, and you know how it is when you get to talking.

We woke up the next morning in Iowa, where corn is king. I reflected that all those corn stalks came from seed dipped in neonicitinoid systemic pesticides, and that with corn prices that topped out at $8/bushel, a lot of pollinator habitat got converted to corn.

We got off in Cleveland, which is close to Medina. Of those two towns, Medina is by far the cuter and friendlier one. The Medina beekeepers put us up in the charming but haunted Spitzer House bed and breakfast. The B&B was filled with antiques and dreamy Midwestern landscape paintings that make you yearn to be young again and smoke a corncob pipe and head off down the river with Huck Finn and Jim.

Medina is the Holy Grail of American beekeeping. It was here, about 1865, that jewelry manufacturer A.I. Root paid a man a dollar to catch a passing swarm of honey bees and became so intrigued with the little darlings that he founded a beekeeping empire. In short order, this beginner beekeeper progressed from honey producer to manufacturer of then-revolutionary Langstroth woodenware, smokers and centrifugal honey extractors. He initially wrote how-to articles for the American Bee Journal, before creating his encyclopedic ABC of Bee Culture (later ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture) and founding his own beekeeping periodical, Gleanings in Bee Culture. You’re holding a copy in your hands.

Today the Root Company centers on publishing and candle-making. Bee Culture magazine editor Kim Flottum showed us through Root’s candle-making factory, housed in a new building next to the factory A.I. Root built by a railroad hub over a hundred years ago. This operation employs robots but also flesh-and-blood Americans. Made in Medina, not Shanghai.

Later in the trip, in the Marie Reine Du Monde Cathedral in Montreal, Marilyn picked up a votive candle. “I think this is a Root candle,” she said.

I talked to the Medina beekeepers about sideline beekeeping. May I summarize? Control your mites. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t sweat the petty stuff. Embrace failure, the greatest teacher. Don’t quit your day job. We all sang a song about honey bees, and then Marilyn and I slipped away into the night. We talked about Medina for the rest of our trip, because how often do you get treated like royalty?

Next stop: New York City, where the rich are very thin indeed. Marilyn showed this country bumpkin around. We walked in Central Park, lunched in Harlem, dined with old friends.  Kim gave us the name of a rooftop beekeeper enthusiastic about showing us how they do it in the city, but our trip was too brief, our planning too pathetic. Jim was just leaving town. He offered to buy us a drink, anyway. This beekeeper comradeship made me feel all warm and fuzzy.

The train was thick with Amish. They can be outgoing with strangers, even chatty, when they’re not on their cell phones. On the trip back I met a lanky Amish young man who farms 20 acres with horses and whose “favorite thing in life” is snowboarding. He also works for an Amish contractor installing automated feeding systems for factory hog and chicken farms. He was on his way to hunt elk in Telluride. Beekeeping piqued his interest. He asked how much I make on 100 colonies.

We arrived home in Colorado at the end of an October heat wave. Bees were busy devouring their winter honey stores. Vacation was over. Back in the saddle, again.