Fruit Tramp

Alice Lowe

When classes ended in mid-May, Kevin and I loaded up his rusted red Datsun pick-up and headed north out of San Diego. An air mattress took up most of the back, where we would be sleeping for the next six weeks, the snug camper-top allowing us just enough room to sit up. Camping and cooking gear and as little else as we could get by with were stacked and wedged into every available space, shoes hanging from a curtain rod, books under the mattress.

I had succumbed to an invitation to join him in the cherry orchards of Eastern Washington. Picking fruit in the sweltering heat, back-breaking labor for long hours and low wages—how could I resist?

“Come on,” Kevin said. “You know it’ll be fun.” He counted on my being intrigued. I was.

Kevin’s goal was to collect data for his master’s thesis on migrant agricultural workers. He had recently spent three months in a village in central Mexico where most of the working-age males traveled across the border each spring to find seasonal jobs in the U.S. and send their earnings home. Now he would follow their path and work with them in the fields.

And what was in it for me? After spending my twenties and early thirties in virtual blinders, rarely veering from the safety of my circumscribed life and levelheaded choices, I’d met Kevin. He appealed to my long-stifled appetite for adventure, luring me with promises of what I’d been missing. I saw my chance—Double Jeopardy, Door Number Three—and I jumped at it. Our time together was one of personal challenge and discovery that led, among other things, to my leaving a dead-end job to go back to school, where I was studying sociology and planning a previously unimagined future.

Now Kev and I were veering off in different directions, but that didn’t preclude what might be our “sunset” trip. “Maybe you’ll get a paper out of it too,” he had added as a sweetener to his invitation.

We camped one night along the rugged central California coast, another amid the rolling dunes of southern Oregon. We pulled into Portland on a bleak afternoon, the day after the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Just fifty miles from the volcano site, the city was dark with debris, blanketed in ash. The volcanic matter—cinders, shards and powder, like vestiges of a cremation—had brought daily life to a slow-motion slog, and people were warned to stay inside or to wear masks outside to protect their lungs, glasses or goggles for their eyes.

We spent a quiet night cocooned, virtually marooned, at a friend’s apartment. Thirty years later the memory remains more vivid than the rest of the trip: our serene candlelit dinner, the glow of merlot in delicate stemmed wineglasses, listening to our friend’s new album of Krystian Zimerman playing the Chopin waltzes. Ambient light, good food and wine, the poignancy of the music, feeling warm and safe while danger lurked outside. Early the next morning we unmasked the tarped and taped truck and sputtered out of the murky cloud.

Cherry growers proliferate in Central and Eastern Washington, but Kev’s contacts had recommended Grandview, a small agricultural city two hundred miles northeast of Portland, halfway between Washington’s Tri-Cities area and the Yakima Valley, its namesake view that of snow-capped Mount Rainier. We arrived around noon and prowled around the town, delighted with its rustic, shuffling, old-world ambiance. At a local bar we quizzed the bartender and chatted with a couple of guys shooting pool. They told us who was hiring and where to go, but when Kevin asked about the migrant laborers, they told him that the growers who use the Mexicans never hire Anglos and vice versa.

“What now?” I asked after we’d parked the truck for the night amid some trees off a side road, more or less out of sight. “This defeats the purpose of the trip.”

“But we’re here,” Kevin said. “You don’t want to turn around and head home, do you?”

We’d come this far and had committed the time. We agreed to stick with the original plan if we could get work. Kevin would still try to make contact with the Latino workers. We would have our adventure.

Washington State produces more than half of the sweet cherries in the United States on tens of thousands of acres. Growers target the Fourth of July—peak cherry pie time—for getting most of the crop into stores and stands, so the big push is in June. The first grower we visited the next morning hired us on the spot. We were directed to a makeshift campground on the property, where a handful of others were setting up temporary homesteads around their campers, vans, and trailers, putting out folding chairs and tables, hibachis and camp stoves. Country music blasted out from boom boxes. “Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys” takes me right back; “Shadows in the Moonlight” recaptures slow, humid, mosquito-infested nights.

Our neighbors were what was known as “fruit tramps,” nomads who followed seasonal crops around the country. They took their place in a long history of transient field hands, from Steinbeck’s Oklahoma Dustbowl migrants of the 1930s heading west with little more than hope and the clothes on their backs to the hippies of the ‘70s, picking up work on the road as they roamed the country in psychedelic vans. During World War II the bracero program imported laborers from Mexico, but with the end of the war and domestic war work, jobs were reshuffled and reclaimed. The ebb and flow of Latino workers continued, however. There was still a demand for their services, and the work paid well enough to make it worth the risk of entering the country illegally.

By exploiting the Latino labor force, growers found they could pay their Anglo workers less: take it or lump it. Fewer jobs, lower pay, and child labor laws that prevented children from working the fields with their parents led to a shrinking corps of home-grown fruit tramps. When we appeared on the scene in 1980, the field workers were mostly undocumented Mexicans. The Anglos still on the circuit—couples and single men, most of them from the midwestern farm belt—came here for the apple and cherry harvest, after which they would spread south and east, picking citrus crops in California, Arizona, and Texas.

We bought picking buckets at the hardware store in town where you could find just about anything, from kitchen gadgets to hiking gear. The buckets were light-weight plastic, kidney-shaped to mold to the body. You strapped it on with a harness over the shoulders like a front-loading baby carrier. We filled buckets—which held about thirty pounds of fruit—then dumped them into flats. We were paid for the number of full flats at the end of each day, I can’t recall how much, but it worked out to more than minimum wage once we got into the swing of it. At first the others would fill their buckets two or three times before I had a single one. But I was a fast learner and soon was keeping up with the best of them. I could get a good rhythm going, both hands in motion at all times while getting a strong grip on the stems so as not to “milk” the cherries, pull them from their stems. But I would lose my equilibrium and my confidence when I went too far up the ladders, where so much of the fruit was tucked into the high inner limbs of the fifteen to twenty-foot trees. So Kevin and I teamed up; I worked at ground level and on the lower rungs of the ladder, while he harvested up in the higher reaches.

1 2 >>