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Irons in the fire: Ranch driving lessons

Paul Marchant for Progressive Forage Published on 29 March 2019

Winter had been dragging on for what seemed like forever. The notion of warm, sunny days and green grass seemed about as distant and likely as a Cleveland Browns Super Bowl victory parade or a referendum for common sense on a San Francisco ballot.

Still, Mike trudged on through the cold, gray days of southern Idaho’s January and February. He counted his blessings daily, chief among them being his wife and three sons who cherished the cowman’s way of life every bit as much as he did. As the snow continued to pile up along Goose Creek and Trapper Creek, the plea for moisture that was a routine part of the family’s daily prayers was replaced by a thinly veiled threat of bodily harm or, at the very least, a multigenerational hex on the family of any area farmer who continued to supplicate the Almighty for the continued blessing of snow.

Enough was enough, already. The relentless and humorless winter weather this year was, it seemed, sucking the joy out of the cowboy lifestyle.

Though not recommended by farm safety experts, nor preferred by those practicing it, feeding with a driverless truck is probably a fairly common practice on a lot of ranches. Mike had an old flatbed Ford pickup that was the perfect feed truck. It had no frills or fluff, no power locks, no power windows, no carpet, a barely working heater and an old AM/FM radio that sometimes picked up a signal if he cocked his head just so. Perhaps the best feature was the extra-slow granny gear which came in especially handy on days when the only available help for feeding was an occasionally useful dog or two.

Mike has a promising pup he calls Rip. On a frigid January day, Rip was the driver as Mike pitched hay off the back of the old flatbed, feeding the heifers. Rip was still a novice driver. He hadn’t learned the nuances of the old pickup and was easily distracted by the heifers that milled around and surrounded the truck as it crept along as Mike methodically flaked hay onto the ground. The energetic canine bounced around in the cab, darting from one side to the other as he tried to make sense of his assignment. He couldn’t quite figure out why he was trapped inside the cab while all the action was happening outside, so close yet impossible to reach.

As Rip was neglecting his driving duties, Mike looked up and noticed the truck was heading straight for the fence. He jumped off the back to open the door and turn the steering wheel and avoid the impending mini-catastrophe. To his utter dismay and astonishment, Rip, in his frantic eagerness to get at the heifers had, against all odds, managed to push the locks down on both doors. The truck was now mere yards from the fence. Mike was in the middle of his own slow-motion train wreck.

With limited options and time, he frantically tried to smash through the window with the handle of his pocketknife. The truck, oblivious to its plight and the angst of its owner, slowly lumbered on. The sound of stretching wire and old cedar posts snapping like toothpicks seemed like shotgun blasts in Mike’s ears as the old truck continued on out of the field and onto the road. The pocketknife proved to be no solution. Mike needed a bigger hammer. Luckily, the omnipresent rocks of poor high-desert farmground can, on occasion, prove to be quite useful. Mike grabbed a softball-sized one and successfully smashed the driver’s side window, unlocked the door and brought the carnage to a halt.

Like any worthy superhero, Mike paid little mind to the minor gash on his finger. The snot rag in his pocket helped slow down the bleeding. Of more concern to him was the day he would lose to fixing the mangled remnants of the fence.

The drive down the creek, back to the home place, minus a window was more invigorating than he would have liked as he sat in shards of broken window glass on a soaking wet seat, the result of poor Rip’s reaction to his master’s emergency auto entry measures. Miraculously, Rip is not yet resting in peace. He has, however, had his driving privileges revoked.  end mark

Paul Marchant
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