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Tales of a Hay Hauler: Law of the Yukon

Brad Nelson for Progressive Forage Published on 27 November 2019

Quips and quirks of personality are what make us individuals and not breathing robots. (Some even say I have a few of my own.) What’s more interesting than the quips and quirks is how an individual came by them. I met Leo Ritthaler in the late ’70s or early ’80s.

We wear the same size shirt – a 2XL tall. But he’s about 8 inches shorter than I am, and he wasn’t happy with his short legs. We trucked hay together for a number of years. He worked – and worked hard – and was fair and honest in all I ever saw him do. And no matter where we were or what group we happened to be near, the only female he had any interest in was Mary, his wife.

He always had a toolbox in his truck as well as a “goodies” box that had all manner of “o” rings, oddball nuts and bolts, ferrules, fittings, geuckumputty (RTV silicone sealer), “hundred-mile-an-hour” tape (duct tape), electrical tape, fuses and some wire. And there was always some non-perishable food stashed away.

With all that, there was still the night Leo’s helper shuttled between my truck and his as we went through each other’s goodie boxes looking for just that tiny bit of something that would slow down the air leak in Leo’s air shifter knob so we could get back home – or at least to town. It was a good hour past “zero-dark-30,” and we were where we unloaded on a high bench north and west of Mountain Home, Idaho, in a 20-plus-mph wind at about 29 degrees.

I think the thing finally quit leaking because it was afraid of Leo.

Leo’s sister and brother-in-law were living in Alaska when the Alaska oil pipeline came about. Leo went and joined, driving the pipeline road from the port at Valdez to Prudhoe Bay.

The Prudhoe Bay end was usually a quick turn-around with just time for the shop to give the truck a once-over and the driver to get food and sleep. The food was provided and consisted of walking up to the grill and having the cook ask how many steaks he wanted and how he wanted them cooked. Leo said it was a battle to maintain his “girlish” figure.

He said the two-cycle Detroit diesel engines were popular. The V-12 put out 450 horsepower and was the big horse of the day. Other than the power factor, the Detroit diesels were a more compact piece of steel than the rival Cat or Cummins engines, and if one had to be abandoned in 40-below weather, were easier to heat up to starting temperature. A common sight was a row of trucks running at fast idle all night because the shop lacked sufficient generator power to plug in the trucks so they’d start in the morning. Leo said, “Running at fast idle all night, those things tended to slobber oil. One guy would have the job of dumping a gallon of oil in each, every couple of hours, all night.”

Leo said the North Slope was actually a desert, with only a couple of inches equivalent of rainfall a year. However, it was so cold, the wind would blow the snow around in blizzard and white-out conditions “until it wore out the snow.”

When that happened on the road, all there was to do was stop until conditions improved. “Most of the drivers carried a carton of canned sardines and lots of soda crackers,” Leo said. Books and letter-writing materials were common. It took an interesting mindset for a fellow to be able to just wait by himself for sometimes three or four days before the wind stopped and/or a snowplow came to dig his truck out.

One driver was in his 60s. Leo heard a shop foreman telling the crew to make sure that man’s truck always had a fresh set of studded drive tires. The foreman said he wasn’t “gonna have that old man out fighting with tire chains in a blizzard in the dark.”

Ever notice that the trucks running near, into or out of Canada have a huge robust structure over the whole front end of the truck? It’s a moose bar. Australian truckers call them a “roo” (kangaroo) bar. In the wild, a moose has the right-of-way. With this mindset, the moose expects all traffic to give it the right-of-way. An at-speed collision with a moose can total a truck, and a moose struck by a car or pickup can end with fatal results, with the body of the moose coming through the windshield.

From this evolved one of Leo’s favorite quips, “It’s the law of the Yukon. If it’s bigger than you, it has the right-of-way.”

What was Leo’s day of most excitement? The day he came around a corner on an icy road to the sight of a loaded tanker trailer bouncing end-over-end toward his truck. It missed the cab but threw the whole truck off the road. Leo got out before everything burned. He rode back to base in the tow truck hauling the burned hulk he’d been driving. But he salvaged his Ruger .22 revolver. Next day at the shop, he noticed a couple of guys searching through the wreckage. Leo said they “heard the guy driving had a gun in the truck.” Leo turned around, then grinned and walked away, knowing they’d find nothing.  end mark

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