Hang around with my buddy Pete Christensen long enough, and he’s liable to play you one of his favorite songs, “Geese of Beverly Road,” by the National. It’s a classic light-from-darkness tune whose chorus dreams, “Hey love, we’ll get away with it/We’ll run like we’re awesome, totally genius.”
That childlike spirit of escape and adventure has been at the heart of the 46-year-old welder, artist, musician, husband and father of three for as long as we’ve been friends and neighbors. He’s fond of referring to human beings as “creation machines” who make their own reality through intention, self-awareness and the power of positive thinking, and damned if it doesn’t work. To wit:
Last year when he needed a truck to haul some of his welding and music gear, Pete put out the word to the universe in the form of the thought balloon, “Create Truck.” He’s always had a penchant for finding value in the abandoned and under-used, and reimagining what could be. Lo and behold, in a matter of days and after a minimal amount of networking, he secured an old Ford F-150 pick-up, given to him by friend via the forces of serendipity.
This spring, as the snow melted and the soil burst with new life, he cast out the same incantation for a tractor. For the past few years, his inner urban farmer had been yelping to get out, and now he wanted to appease it with a tangible piece of country living in the city.
“From my age on — I was born in 1966 — I got to see the family farm get squeezed out of existence,” said Pete, who grew up in St. Paul and spent summers on his grandfather’s farm in Oklahoma. Like many city kids, he admits to being haunted by the romance of farm life, and a work ethic beholden to Mother Earth and the change of seasons.
“There’s a 30-year lapse in farm kids growing up, knowing how to fix stuff, knowing how to ride animals and take care of husbandry and crops. It’s down to a handful now. But Minnesota right now is an island of fertile crop growth, while the rest of the country is in a drought. And for me, this tractor represents Minnesota and its fertility — in work, science, art and agriculture.”
It’s all about roots, in other words, so it’s no surprise that Pete — an accomplished keyboardist — finds himself part of a resurgent insurgent country music movement currently sprouting new crops in the Twin Cities and beyond. Last month, he was in Northfield recording with his friends Matt Arthur & the Bratlanders when he mentioned his tractor dream to guitarist and graphic artist Doug Bratland, who had a 1957 Minneapolis Moline 335 Utility tractor in his garage just taking up space. The two worked out a deal — Pete bartered some welding work in exchange for the tractor — and the bright yellow chariot with the cherry red rims was his.
“It’s like a small 30-to-50 acre tractor,” he said. “But it was a workhorse, built right here in Hopkins and in Minneapolis on Lake Street, and when I found that out that kicked my butt, man. I’ve spent the last month learning about the Minneapolis Moline, and I’m so stoked it was built here, because in the last few years I’ve fallen in love with Minneapolis and everything it offers, all the creativity and artistry.
“I’ve spent 40-plus years looking for passion in something, and to all of a sudden have it stumble out of a barn in Northfield… Now all I want to do is drive it around town, even though I’ll probably get in trouble for it.”
For a time the main rival of tractor behemoth John Deere, Minneapolis Moline was a tractor and farm machinery equipment company headquartered in Hopkins, with production plants on Lake Street (off Hiawatha Avenue) and in Hopkins and Moline, Ill. Its heyday was the 1930s, and ceased production in 1970.
Pete’s tractor hadn’t seen any action for decades, so he towed it to a mechanic pal’s shop in Hopkins. Over a couple beers, the two men tuned it up, “gave it some TLC,” and got it up running. He pulled up in front of my house a couple Thursdays ago, to double-takes from the neighbors and the 4B bus driver, and, with a grin the size of a freshly-swathed cornfield, proclaimed, “I’m probably the first person to drive a tractor from Hopkins to Minneapolis in 50 years.”
Thus began a series of what he calls “joy rides” around town. If you’ve seen him, as so many have in the last few weeks, you know it’s no exaggeration when he says it’s changed his life.
“It’s like a joy machine. People wave and give the thumbs-up, and they know you’re [messing] with the system. But it’s more ‘yee-haw!’ than ‘breaking the law!’ People get out of your way, stop what they’re doing and smile, and jump up and down, and take pictures, and ask questions.
“It’s universal, and it’s cross-cultural. Kids go crazy. Old-timers come up to you, almost with a tear in their eye. You just kind of shock their world, you just upset the program.
“You don’t want to be a nuisance, but you want people to see this Minneapolis history. It kind of trumps this Mitt Romney circusfest and this Barack Obama circusfest. I’ve tuned that out. People have yelled at me for doing it, and I don’t care, because my life is trumping that, and I say, if you don’t like what’s going on, create your world.
“I mean, you can spend billions and billions on a war machine that creates total destruction, and be part of that, or you can drive a tractor through a town and create joy, instantly. What do you choose? It’s a no-brainer.”
Last Saturday, Pete’s tractor was the hit of his 47th and Aldrich neighborhood block party. He rented a wagon, bought some hay bales and toted families down the street, to the Rose Gardens, and around Lake Harriet. It was the tractor’s first public appearance, upstaging even the visiting fire truck, whose captain wanted to trade rigs with Pete on the spot. That’s when he realized the nerve he’d struck in himself wasn’t his alone.
“At the very least, if I pull that tractor out even one day a year, I know that that thing leaves people better off. Minneapolis is better off for it being here. If I drive around the lake, I guarantee 100 people will smile, or laugh, or jump up and down, or talk, when they normally wouldn’t have done that. I know from experience that this thing has the power to do that,” he said. “I keep saying, ‘Someone’s gotta do it. It might as well be me.’ I’d love to just drive it across the state. I love being on it. I’ve found it to be nirvana for me.”