The slate sky hung low on the hills and wheezed a fine mist that felt warm for December.
It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was in the home stretch of my preparations for my first-ever cookie exchange in Chase County.
I had baked 12 dozen Mexican wedding cookies, delicate little butter-pecan balls coated in powdered sugar, divided them into 12 pint-size Mason jars with torn-off squares of plastic wrap to cover the tops.
Only one thing left to do — wash string.
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Washing string is one of many things I never did when I lived in the city. If I were still in my swanky condo on the Country Club Plaza, I would have walked around the corner to Paper Source to buy string (more likely, raffia).
In a commerceless town like mine, the bar is substantially higher for what you will drive 35 miles round-trip to procure.
The string in question was cotton kitchen twine that I had appropriated for garden use and left in a shed. It was soiled and slightly mildewed, nothing a bath in sudsy bleach water wouldn’t reverse.
The string was washed, towel dried, snipped and tied around the necks of the jars. Then I loaded them onto the passenger seat of the pickup.
The cookie exchange was at a farm I’d never been to on the other side of the county. It started at 6 p.m., which meant I’d have to find my way to a remote location after dark on unlit, unpaved roads. Fun! I love stuff like that.
I copied my friend Gwen’s directions on a piece of notebook paper; the last part was epic: “(A)fter crossing the creek, you will be on full gravel/dirt. Turn east and proceed 0.8 miles. Turn south across a Christmas-decorated cattle guard and proceed through pasture via two-track pasture lane.”
Rural America has no shortage of charming holiday sights, and I’ve soaked up a lot of them: lighted antique tractor parades, vintage wreaths with electric candles in the center affixed to light poles and cedar trees freshly chopped from the back 40 in most living rooms.
But the Christmas-lighted cattle guard was a fresh delight. Multicolored bulbs snaked up fat wooden fence posts on either side of the metal crossing, creating a David Lynch-like vignette in the middle of the prairie.
It was still raining lightly, so the “two-track pasture lane” was punctuated with puddles.
The puddles looked equally shallow, but turned out not to be. After breezing right through the first two, I caught air when I bounced hard into the third one.
After the invigorating drive, my senses were primed, and the inside of my friend’s vaulted-ceiling, cabinlike home pushed them to the brink of overload.
A fire crackled in a wood stove in front of a massive limestone hearth, winter lightning flashed behind stained glass windows, creating a colorful strobe effect, and the house smelled of sugar, ginger and cedar.
An enormous home-grown Christmas tree, 8 feet tall and every bit as wide, was so imposing that I expected armies of wooden soldiers and uniformed rats to emerge from under the lowest boughs and do battle.
Women-only gatherings often feel empowering, and the effect is concentrated when the meetup is in the middle of nowhere in winter, after dark.
The 12 of us drank fizzy cocktails and feasted on local grass-fed-beef chili and some bacon-Hatch-chile-green-onion corn muffins that belong on a registry of addictive substances.
After dinner we traded stories about the origins of our cookie recipes. Some were sentimental, involving deceased family members or childhood memories; some were downloaded from Food Network.
Some of the more talented bakers made not one, but three, four or five different kinds of cookies. In all there were about 30 different drops, bars, balls, thumbprints and pinwheels.
In an out-of-character move, I was first to leave.
Truth be told, I couldn’t wait for the hour-long drive home. The cloud cover had pulled apart, and the December sky outside the truck windows was speckled with stars. Once I got back to the two-lane highway that goes through my town, I made a game of trying a different cookie each time I spotted the three round headlights of an advancing train.