Remove anything with a stone, we were told. Jewelry. Watches. It all had to come off. Backpacks. Purses. Everything was to be left in the small conference room at Cayuga Milk Ingredients.
Hugging my pack close, I watched my classmates nonchalantly shed their excess belongings. Leave my stuff? No way. We were way out in the middle of nowhere. With people I hardly knew. My photography instructor and five other retired folks with flashy cameras who’d go anywhere for a good shot, and some young guy I’d never met before with a pale pinkish ponytail and blue polished nails. What kind of field trip was this where we had to abandon our things?
I’d thought we were going to photograph a dairy barn, but silver tank-trucks kept pulling up to deliver milk. This was a milk processing facility, I learned. No cows. No free ice cream at the end. The place was creepy, huge, with gigantic stacks towering into the sky. It was too late to flee. And now everything would have to be removed: my father’s watch, the necklace my mother gave me, my grandmother’s ring that would have to be wrenched off, the thumb-drive-pendant with poems written by my daughter who died, and my single earring that gets taken off only by my sister or a girlfriend since I’m squeamish about it. “I won’t be able to put my earring back in by myself,” I said to no one in particular.
It wasn’t like we had to strip ourselves bare; but for me it was. Who was I without the things I’d been hanging onto for dear life? We were given long white plastic coats. And green mesh hairnets. And a choice: eyeglasses or safety glasses. To complete the outfit, we had to put shower caps over our shoes. With the eight of us there to take pictures, it hurt to think of how many times I’d be photographed in this get-up. I gazed at the pile of my precious worldly possessions like I might never see them again, and began the tour.
We followed the milk that was pumped from room to room. Each room had a distinct climate zone and different noise patterns. There were vast hallways of empty sterile space. And fans, plastic vats, pumps, motors, … lots of sanitized chrome. I avoided the foamy puddles I later learned were sanitizing agents, meant to be stepped in; and watched as, behind bars, a robot packaged products and sealed bags. Mountains of plastic bags of powdered milk filled cavernous rooms. And mostly, there were the endless pipes. They reached up and out, obscuring any sense of ceiling. They pulsed with milk. And chemicals. And some of the pipes dripped. It was like walking through an enormous haunted house in a conglomerate of Disneyland and the Twilight Zone.
Then, suddenly, we were all herded out an exit, into the hot glaring sun. Dazed and blinking, we found our way back to the conference room and our belongings. I scooped up my backpack and jewels. The kid with the ponytail helped me put back my earring. Then, gratefully restored to my old familiar self, I rode in the school van with my fellow explorers, and agreed that THAT trip was The Best.