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Tales of a Hay Hauler: Cold feet and hot chili

Brad Nelson Published on 23 December 2008

I think it was the winter after the rabbit plague in the 80s. Leo and his nephew David were hauling fairly steady to the ranches south of Mountain City, Nevada. Lyle and I were doing our best to keep the closer-to-home dairymen happy and in feed.

We were supposed to hurry, and join Leo in Nevada for two or three loads a week. Leo had been talking about it being so cold that the truck he was following was blowing ice crystals from the exhaust.

Leo had driven in Alaska on the pipeline, and said that it had to be below 35 degrees below zero for diesel exhaust to crystallize right out of the exhaust stacks.

We were loaded and into Nevada when I realized I had left my overshoes home. All I had was my leather boots. I was sure my feet were going to freeze solid and break off. The weather changed, and it was just barely below freezing that trip.

I never knew just what to expect when I joined Leo in Nevada. I did make a habit of having enough to eat with me in the truck. One ranch we hauled to let us use the cooking facilities at the bunkhouse after unloading.

About the time Lyle and I had our canned chili to the point of boiling, Leo’s nephew came and said that our supper was ready. For whatever reason, Leo and David had heated up chili for four. So we ate Leo’s chili, and then our own.

We had enough internal heat that we slept with the windows open on the truck that night. Leo claimed that downwind of us, a bull died in the night. After that, we made it a point to ask what the plan was before opening chili.

Years earlier, I loaded hay in the Mud Lake, Idaho area in the middle of winter. I arrived at the ranch late in the afternoon.

For whatever reason, my appointment to load had been forgotten, and the grandmother was the only one home. She assured me that she was very competent with the hay loading grapple on the tractor, so off to the haystack we went.

After being stuck in the snow for awhile, we got started loading just before the sun went down. In the process of playing with tire chains after already being stuck, my leather boots were saturated.

As darkness moved in, the temperature dropped from around 35 degrees to around 15 degrees below zero. I didn’t notice being cold while loading, since that sweet little grandmother kept me buried in hay bales.

After tying down the load and aiming the truck towards the house, I noticed that my feet felt funny. I reached down and felt my boots. They were frozen solid. I had on some good, heavy wool socks, and I had been very active trying to avoid being buried in hay bales, so I was not cold anywhere, including my feet.

It took about a hundred miles of hard driving before the heater in the truck thawed out my shoes. About that time, my feet felt cold and some of the excess chili would have been nice to pour down inside my boots.

Leo told me that while driving on the Alaska pipeline, he learned how to use the heater in the truck as a cooking device.

The plan was to get some frozen fried chicken and place it in its box in front of the heater that was right behind the driver’s seat (the purpose of the placement being to keep the driver’s feet warm).

With the heater and its fan on high, the chicken was ready to eat in sixty to eighty miles. He said it was a safety thing, also. You could always follow your trail of chicken bones back home. Some of the drivers on the pipeline would pack with them a case of sardines and a case of soda crackers.

The weather could turn into a white-out with no advance notice, and could leave a driver and truck sitting until it went away – sometimes more than just one or two days. The trucks carried enough fuel to keep the driver warm, and sardines and soda crackers would keep the driver from starving.

The Doodle Bug, the hay loader I built on an old Dodge truck chassis, with a Ford six-cylinder engine, and the loader from a farm tractor mounted to the rear, had a spot on the intake manifold just right for heating a couple of big cans of Campbell’s chunky soup. If we put the soup on when we started to load, it would be just right when we finished loading.

A couple of times I got a little wild with the Doodle Bug, and would notice a flat red and white can on the ground. They would never fall off and get run over at the start of a load, always just five minutes before time to eat. The fail-safe was that there was always another can in the truck (and also a propane cook-stove).

One trip to Tuscarora, Nevada, with son Dan along, we stopped at Mountain City, Nevada, for supplies. Mel, at the store, had a piece of dead cow that looked like just the thing for supper, later that day.

I already had a couple of potatoes and onions, plus the seasonings needed, and the trusty cast-iron skillet. We had an uneventful trip into Tuscarora, unloaded, settled up with the rancher, and headed for the highway. Out of sight of the ranch, and before coming to the highway, I pulled over, and proceeded to cook steak and potatoes.

I heated the skillet up good and hot, then added just a bit of grease and seared the steak on both sides. Then I pushed it to one side of the skillet and added the diced potatoes and onions. By the time the potatoes were done, the steak was a nice medium rare.

Dan and I divided it up, and then Dan told me that he had been hoping the rancher would not invite us to stay for supper, since he knew what I had in the cooler in the truck.

This same boy, at about age 13, would ride his bike down to where the truck was parked, and grease it for me, and adjust the brakes so I could get another hour’s sleep before heading toward Portland.

You should have heard his reasons why he needed to move the truck forward and back so much.

“I wanted to make sure the brakes were adjusted right,” or “I couldn’t get the grease gun on the one U-joint where it was.”

The worst was that he told his friends that he had to grease the truck – because his dad was too fat to get under it anymore. FG