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Tales of a Hay Hauler: ‘Tell Cookie his string broke’

Brad Nelson for Progressive Forage Published on 27 December 2018

When hauling bulk potatoes out of potato sheds in the winter in southern Idaho, one thing you never wanted to do is pass the last café en route to loading unless you had just eaten. Too many ifs and maybes.

Plan A is always that you will arrive as the truck ahead of you is just about to finish loading, allowing time to prep your trailer for loading, and then back under the piler seconds after the truck ahead of you pulls out.

The ifs and maybes include the piler having broken, the previous truck was late and is just starting to load, or there is a mud issue at the potato shed and the tractor provided to pull trucks in and out has issues.

I hauled potatoes one season, and en route to load, I knew I needed to stop and eat. Problem was, my stomach was not happy with the world. I stopped at the last café in Bliss, Idaho, and went inside. Seated, I asked if perchance there was some Alka-Seltzer in the place. The waitress asked if they had made me sick. I assured her I had yet to eat and needed the tummy meds and about 20 minutes. Then I’d either order or know not to.

“Let me check.” She came back with the fizz tablets and a glass of water. I thanked her. Twenty minutes later, she was back and took my order. I doubt a fast-food place would have been so accommodating.

Plan A was working well at the potato shed that night, too.

This was in the early 1970s. Most cafés accessible to trucks were still real cafés, with the food cooked to order. The fast-food places had not overrun the country yet. A bowl of chili came from a batch that was made from scratch earlier that day. Among the CB radio chatter were arguments as to which truck stop café had the best chili.

Favorites on the menu were chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes and gravy, dinner salad, veggies and a baked in-house yeast bread roll. Favorites included Yankee pot roast, hamburger steak and meat loaf. A breakfast staple was ham and eggs, with the ham cut off of a real ham. How things have changed.

Traveling with my wife a few months back, I was bemoaning the loss of the real restaurants. I wondered out loud if the Baker Truck Corral in Baker City, Oregon, still had its “real” café. An hour later we stopped, and it was indeed still in business as it had been 30 years before.

The menu bragged on their “world-famous” chicken-fried steak, so I had to order one – the large size, as there was a reduced portion available. That sucker filled its own platter, with the taters and gravy, veggies and dinner roll on a second plate. It felt like I wouldn’t need to eat again for two days. I should have passed on the salad bar, which came ahead of the main course.

On the road with hay trucks, we’d vary where we stopped to eat by the schedule of needing sleep and letting the road crews have a shot at graveling the freezing rain on the roads before we tried it.

One morning, we met for breakfast at a now-gone place by the Farewell Bend weigh station in Oregon. We ate. One of the group left to use the restroom. The checks came while he was gone. I added to his (the checks were all handwritten then), “Use of restroom, 50 cents.”

I felt bad, because the little old lady running the till would hold each check close to her eyes and then punch in the amount on the cash register. I was standing behind Norm when she squinted, looked puzzled and asked Norm, “What is this ‘use of restroom for 50 cents’ about?”

Norm looked at the ticket, turned around and looked me in the eyes, and proceeded to make rude comments.

The place still stands west of Pendleton, where Leo, always a fast eater, dozed off while the rest of us finished eating. We tiptoed to the cash register and were paying for our meals when our server noticed we had deserted Leo. She must have had people desert passed-out drunks in her serving area before and assumed the worst. Leo awoke when she let out a war whoop in our direction and realized what we’d done. He’d hardly speak to us for the next two days.

Most of the time, most of the food was good wherever we stopped. Once I ordered a bowl of ham and bean soup. Not bad. I’d been dealing with tire chains and blowing snow and needed something to warm me up from the inside out. I searched through my bowl of soup and finally found a small piece of ham. I called the waitress over.

“Tell the cook I think his string broke.”

“Why? What do you mean?” she asked.

“I found one little piece of ham in my ham and bean soup, so I’m sure his string broke.”  end mark