It was one of those subzero days, back in early Alderspring history before hired help. With frozen wooden hands, I finished the feeding of 6 tons of grassy alfalfa hay, and jumped down off the 4 foot high bed on the back of the rusting 1959 Chevy Viking ranch truck. It was good that I was finished, because the Viking was near the end of the field, idling across the bumpy and frozen waste in low gear, driverless. Most people around here feed cows like this. They just pointed truck to where they hoped it would drive on its own, popped it in gear, and ran back to jump on the moving bed or trailer the truck pulled. Then, they flaked off their cargo of hay to the hungry beeves. In the barely marginal practice of cattle ranching, it was unlikely that you would afford to hire a driver; you just “made do,” as we were.
We were between draft horses. Up until a couple of years before, we steadily fed with Pet and Pat, my lovely team of Belgians. But I lost them, sadly, to the tragedy of old age, and my new team of Suffolks, Red and Snap, were not yet ready for work. So we had to truck feed. It’s what most people do, and they are alone as they do it.
And sometimes, as you’ll come to note, dear reader, that solo hay feeding can cause quite unexpected problems. Here’s a word of advice: you might not want to feed those cows with a new truck.
Sometimes a kid helped me. I recalled one night, 11-year-old Melanie was driving the big Viking, and those semi tires on the real duals got inextricably stuck in a drifted over ditch. No blame to the driver; the ditch was invisible on the flat snow-covered field. It was an icy subzero night and we were cell-phone less. We would have to walk back to the ranch.
Since the old and rusting orange beast of a truck was missing a heater, Melanie had the presence of mind to dress very warmly. It was a good thing she had.
It was about a mile and a half away, over the river bridge. We couldn’t see the warm lights glowing from home due to the steady snowfall. Fording the river, it would have been only half a mile. But that was unthinkable given the weather and the darkness; there were places that the Pahsimeroi was over 10 feet deep. Despite the cold, our stupid but loveable mutt dog Bamer-Sue decided to swim and left us (he made it back before we did). We had to hike over to the bridge. We made it OK, but we were both near frostbitten, and grateful we didn’t get turned around and lost on the featureless blizzardy night.
I learned my lesson on that one: when feeding or venturing to the other side of the ranch, you had better be ready to tough it out; maybe for the night. There’s one night I recall having to do that. It was 30 below zero, and I slept in the back seat of the four-wheel-drive carryall I had driven over there. I couldn’t run the heater very much (I didn’t trust the rotting body to keep carbon monoxide out). I had a bedroll in there, but still froze. It was too far to walk at almost 2 miles away from the house. I did have a cell phone and told Caryl I might not get back because there were 200 calving cows with newborn calves being born in the brush, and I needed to check on them, getting them up so they didn’t freeze to the icy ground. And so, there I was, wandering around in the frozen river bottoms, poking around willows with a flashlight, seeing what I could see, making rounds every hour or so. Indeed, there. There were calves to tend to, so it was a good thing I stayed (besides, I think I was younger and tougher then).
Besides getting stuck and stranded, there were other hazards of running a driving feed truck alone. I recall my older rancher friend, Jack, so proud of his new royal blue Dodge pickup (“It was only one week old!”) hooked to the feed wagon. He finished forking hay from the last of the hay wagon, jumped off, and dusted the hay off of his pants (got to keep that new truck clean!), looking forward to warming up after getting near blasted by the frozen wind. He had left his best friend blue heeler cow dog, Sherm (for the Sherman tank, which he did have a strange tank like resemblance to) in the truck as he fed. The truck wasn’t going fast by any means; it was in “granny gear,” what we call low range 1st gear. He hardly had to walk faster than his regular long-legged walking pace to reach the driver’s side door.
Sherm saw him coming and, ecstatic, jumped up on the door against the closed window, wagging his stubby tail, eager that the boss was about to rejoin him! And in that moment, just as Jack reached his ungloved hand to open the door, the lock clicked shut. Sherm had pressed the door lock down on the door panel with his happy paw.
Jack rushed to the other side only to find that best friend Sherm had already taken care of that lock, too! And then, with a sickening dread, he turned to eye the situation ahead that he already knew in the map of his mind: he had only about 100 feet of field left before the end of it would come, marked by the rickety barbed wire fence at the edge. Beyond the ancient wires was a 75 foot cliff that bordered many of Jack’s terraced fields, typical for where he ranched, right against the abrupt rise of the 10,000 foot Continental Divide.
Jack quickly pondered his options and came up with only one. He sprinted ahead to the edge of the frozen field and started wildly kicking rocks along the fence line placed there for years of three generations of his family, decades of rock picking this hardscrabble hayfield. Good thing they had placed those stones there. Little did they know that one could really come in handy someday, for such a time as this.
When you might need a rock.
The rocks were frozen in the ground, quite like concrete binds stones facing a rock wall. He kicked the rocks frantically until his feet ached; a brief glance up told him that the truck only had 15 feet to go. He stole an ever-so-brief glance toward movement in the cab.
Sherm was still happily gazing at his best friend through the window. Wagging. Jack looked down and kicked harder.
Finally, a good sized granite rock yielded to the blows of his now smarting toes. He hefted it above his head, and ran for the pickup, yelling at Sherm in his best bellering and angry sounding voice. Sherm moved away from the window, anticipating Jack’s final entry. The boss was finally coming back!
Entry it was, albeit slightly unorthodox. From deep within his muscle memory, Jack called on his mid-1960s high school basketball prowess, and volleyball-sized-rock launched through the air. Rock center-punched the window, and contacted yielding safety glass explosively. Rock and glass hit seat, startling Sherm against the passenger door, now looking at the boulder he shared his seat with. Jack plunged his hand gingerly, quickly through the jagged hole in brand new pickup window, pulled lock button up, opened door, and crashed his butt into the bed of brittle on the otherwise spotless seat. In one fluid motion, he slammed both feet to floor: clutch and brake.
The chrome accented shiny blue truck lurched to an abrupt halt on the rocks of the field boundary.
As Jack gasped for air, he rested his heaving forehead on the steering wheel for a moment, and then looked up.
There was nothing but barbed wire and blue sky ahead of him, and below, a nice view of the Freeman Creek valley. He had stopped 5 feet from the edge. As he caught his breath, he slowly looked over at Sherm, on the other side of the rock; fur and face were glistening with shards of broken glass. Sherm was panting with pleasure. Boss had arrived.
And Sherm happily wagged his stubby tail.
And so dear friends, we always leave the window open if our best friend chooses the warmth of the cab over the blizzard blast outside when we feed the stock.
You should too.