When most people talk about tailgating these days, they’re referring to that wonderful practice of firing up grills in stadium parking lots to prepare for football or baseball games. It evokes great memories about heaps of Fourth of July-style food taking the forms of brats, burgers, hot dogs, ribs and potato salad.
There also is, of course, that less-savory tailgating, the sort when the driver behind you demonstrates the inability to remember basic driving rules – or thinks Highway 53 is a NASCAR track – and slides up to your bumper closer than 1960s teenagers at a drive-in movie.
I’ve been fortunate to be part of another version of tailgating, and fancy the thought that it’s tailgating at its finest: The rural-born method of dropping a pickup truck’s tailgate and sitting, usually arms folded across the chest, to discuss the truly important things that are going on across the county’s ridges and coulees. It’s likened to hunkering — that practice of squat-kneeling with a neighbor on a farmyard’s gravel driveway and stick-doodling in the gravel while talking about the day’s events.
One such tailgating session happened out at our farm the other day when Erling drove out to have a look at the property he still owns across from our farm, the homestead on which he was raised.
That afternoon started like any other day. I’d just been in my gardens, getting some daily exercise on the working end of a hoe, when Erling pulled into the driveway across the road named in his family’s honor. I roamed over to say a quick “hello,” perhaps knowing somewhere in my soul that there would be nothing quick about it.
We started by assuming the usual pose for a casual quickly-pass-the-time-of-day greeting, both knowing the time had grown too long between then and our previous tailgating session.
Erling didn’t break the discussion as he dropped the tailgate and took a seat on it.
I continued to stand for a bit because it’s a little-known tailgating rule that the younger of the people in the discussion should continue in the fully upright position until told or invited otherwise. On that day, my wait wasn’t long.
“Sit down for a while,” he said, pointing to the tailgate.
I did as I was told, of course, as much because I knew he’d share good stories as out of respect for the fact that he’d just passed his 90th birthday.
I’ve tailgated in plenty of stadiums’ parking lots in preparation for many sporting events. There were great and not-so-great discussions and bickering about athletes and teams during that tailgating, along with moments of jokes, laughter and general revelry.
As I sat on Erling’s tailgate, though, it occurred to me about how many times the countryside’s problems – the world’s problems, for that matter – could be resolved by any combination of a couple rural folks sitting on a truck’s tailgate and taking part in discussions between gnawing on a piece of grass, or tasting the sweetness of the red clovers’ blossoms.
It occurred to me how that was about the same way we met several years ago, sitting on the tailgate of that same truck and similarly rolling into a dialog about the countryside’s important issues.
We talked about the fox den we found in a culvert.
Birds, as always, were major parts of the conversation, us especially comparing how the orioles were acting this year at the farm and at his place down in Pigeon Falls and about how turkey vultures had set up a nest down the road from the farm.
We covered who was buying land from whom seemingly everywhere from Arcadia to Osseo, and shared our opinions about what might be done with that land.
He continued from previous tailgating sessions his descriptions of which trees he planted where, and reminded me that, many years ago, he’d planted the massive willow tree standing between our house and the road.
Our mutual never-ending attempts to stay ahead of the weeds in our gardens were high on our matters-of-import list, him intuitively reminding me about the importance of helping my wife process vegetables instead of me simply dumping them onto the kitchen’s counters.
And, of course, we talked about our shared love for the countryside and the need to care for it as much as it’s cared for us.
There was much more, of course, time races with a world-class sprinter’s speed when you’re in such a high-level tailgating session. Supper was waiting for both of us.
I walked into the house, my soul smiling.
The smile apparently was reminding me how good a rural tailgating session can be.
Perhaps a good entrepreneur could develop that goodness into a worthwhile project. I envision pickup trucks parked, tailgates dropped, spread across this northern Driftless Area soil. Signs would invite folks to sit together on those trucks’ tailgates and solve all the communities’ important matters.
It wouldn’t even require training. Tailgating in such purity is part of our rural DNA, after all.