I’m back in my worn brown seat, shoving a 20-ton green machine through the golden wheat field with a gentle push of the hydraulic joystick in my right hand. Elvis sits on the passenger seat beside me. His round eyes bulge as he stares out the glass-enclosed cab, waiting for jack rabbits, coyotes and deer to scurry from the 30-foot header in front of us.
My pug/beagle mix is happy every minute of the two weeks we’re home for harvest each year. When he’s content, he lifts his upper lip, exposing a toothy grin – a trait that gave him his name – and wags his curled tail. Here, he’s free of a leash and the confinement of a fenced yard. He has hundreds of acres to roam, and 3,000 more to view from the inside of my combine.
The ranch I call home is in north-central Oregon, where five miles of wheat fields separate us from our closest neighbors. My father helped my grandfather farm the land before it was his, and even after several decades of reaping the rewards of good soil and hard work, he still gets as excited about harvest as my energetic puppy. An hour into our first day in late July, he is already calculating numbers: “Anybody wanna bet what this field will cut?”
The field dwindles piece by piece as we cut at five miles per hour, for 12 hours each day. Before Elvis joined me, the monotony faded to boredom long before it was time to eat lunch. I’d watch the reel spin as it shuffled wheat into the shifting blades, and it threatened to put me to sleep faster than Tylenol PM. I’d already listened to each of my CDs twice, and cell phone reception is rare. I’m lucky to have a buddy seat, but fi nding a friend willing to fi ll it was no easy task – until Elvis came along.
Our four-legged family members were always large breeds – Rottweiler, Akita, great Dane. But after college, I moved to the city where the limited space in my shared two-bedroom duplex would have been an issue for any big dog. So I got Elvis. And that summer, when the heat turned the fields from green to gold and it was time to head home for harvest, I knew I had found my combine companion.
Elvis might not be your typical ranch dog – he surely wouldn’t know what to do with a cow – but his small stature is what makes it possible for me to carry him up the steep combine ladder. When I haul him down so we can stretch our legs, Elvis wanders between the furrows and rolls around in the dirt and straw, his feather-soft coat camoufl aged by his surroundings.
He, unlike my family’s dogs before him, knows the leash well – and how good it feels to be liberated.
“You ready to go?” I ask as I walk back to the ladder. He weaves his way toward me, careful not to scratch his plump belly on the stiff straw, and jumps on the bottom step, only to bounce back off, with all the stubbornness of a pug and curiosity of a beagle.
“Oh, you want up there, do you?” I tease. He replies with a short yelp, waiting to be lifted to our motorized offi ce with a view.
I used to complain about returning for harvest, telling my father I hoped each year would be my last. These days, with Elvis in the passenger seat, I have someone to talk to. He’ll never tell me my ideas are crazy (a result of too many days in the field), and he’ll never plug his ears when I sing out loud.
This year marks Elvis’s second consecutive harvest, and my sixteenth, and I know we both yearn for the next. Every morning, he begs with his eyes to be invited and runs for the door, eager to go again.
Now, he’s curled up and snoring on the armrest near my lap, taking a mid-morning snooze with the air conditioner pointed at his scrunched nose and one fl oppy ear hanging over his left eye. If my John Deere doesn’t break down, and if we don’t see any real deer to get excited about (“Look, buddy!” I’ll cry, waking him up and pointing), his nap might just roll into the afternoon.
My only complaint? We can’t trade jobs!