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The Alps of Cardinal Marsh

My best hay customer uses approximately one round bale per day to feed his Holstein heifers. They are kept at a place a mile or two from downtown Schley, which is a little less than 10 miles away from my hay. Rather than make a single trip with 11 bales, we usually haul three loads with the gooseneck trailer. It’s not a major project to move hay from here to there — unless we make the delivery in the middle of winter.

Last winter, on the night before one of our Great Schley Bale Migrations, we had a skiff of snow. If you read the story “Forage, flat tires and flames” (posted June 11, 2007), you may recall my feeling about skiffs. A skiff is the most powerful micro-measurement in the world. Roads had turned from smooth snow with no gravel showing, to glass with a coating of WD-40. But, hey, it’s not like I’d be pulling a huge load or anything.

I knew a shortcut to Schley, but it involved this one really short, but fairly steep hill. It was right off the county line at Cardinal Marsh, a huge expanse of land that the state of Iowa owns next to the Turkey River. I made the corner and put it to the floor as I climbed the mini-Alps. I didn't pick up any speed on my ascent, but I made it. There was no traffic, so there was no problem. With traffic, though, it was a traction disaster waiting to happen.

The first and second loads were delivered without incident. The third load was ready, and I decided to take my trusty sidekick Lorne along with me to help unload the flatbed. We went down the county line and I explained “the shortcut.” As we rounded the corner to climb the Alps, the worst-case scenario came true. TRAFFIC! One of the guys from the co-op was coming down the mini-hill in a pickup. I had to swerve to the side and let up on the accelerator to avoid hitting him. That slight flex of my right foot ruined my momentum. We got two-thirds of the way up the hill and the tires started to howl, but we were still moving. We got three-fourths of the way up the hill and progress stopped.

This was bad. This was very, very bad.

We were now almost up the hill, slightly to the side of the road, and we weren't going to make any more forward progress thanks to the skiff. I looked at Lorne and said, “Well?” If I tried to back down the hill, we'd have to hope that we ended up in the parking lot at the Marsh (slightly off to the side of the intersection) if I backed it up perfectly and we didn't slide at all. If we started to turn or slide, the ditch on the south side of the road looked really, really steep. That would be a 911 call if we survived. If we went off the ditch to the north, it wasn't as steep, but there'd probably still be a 911 call. I slowly let my foot off the brake and tried to back up. The truck began to slide and jackknife. Without stopping, we would slide into the ditch on the south side.

There was only one option left. The flatbed has electric brakes on it. I could hold the brake lever all the way to the max with my hand and keep my foot on the truck brakes. Meanwhile I'd call The Chairman Emeritus and get him down there to either take Lorne to get the loader tractor and give me a boost up the hill from behind, or take him home to get the big horse and hope that it could pull us up the hill.

The Chairman answered the phone when I called, thank God! He rarely carries his cell phone with him if we're not in the field. He headed down there right away. Lorne and I decided that it would be a shorter trip to get the 240-horse tractor at home and pull the load up the hill rather than drive a couple miles further to get the 105-horse loader tractor and try to push the load up the hill.

After Lorne left, I waited. I waited for what seemed like forever. The whole time my foot was pushing the brake pedal through the floor and my hand was on the trailer brake control to keep it secured. If I put the truck in Park, the pressure on the automatic transmission would be impossible to get it out again once we got the tractor hooked on. Ever parked on a hill and tried to get your vehicle out of Park? Ever do that with 30,000 lbs. of force pulling on your vehicle? If it wouldn't come out of Park, that meant the tractor would probably start to spin and slide down the hill once its forward motion stopped. Or, we'd end up breaking something in the transmission and this would end up costing me a bundle whether we landed in the ditch or not. Maintaining a death grip on the brake control and leg-crunch-to-end-all-leg-crunches against the brake pedal made more sense.

In what seemed like three hours, Lorne finally got there with the tractor. For towing jobs, we acquired The Snake almost 20 years ago (see “Eden, a Minister, and a Snake,” posted November 17, 2009). It's a giant bungee cord with loops sewn into each end. It has incredible flex when you pull something out. A 20-ft. cord suddenly lengthens out to 25 or 30 ft. and then retracts as you drive forward to sort of act as an added force in the pulling transaction. That also allows you to take a run with the pulling vehicle and not snap everyone's neck like a log chain would when it reaches a taut level. Powerful, durable, resilient and smooth. That's a nice combination.

Lorne got in front of me with the tractor and got The Snake hooked up to the truck. I couldn't get out to help, because I was still crushing the brake pedal and holding onto the brake control lever. However, I did manage to call him before he left home to make sure he brought some 6- x 6-in. wooden blocks with him. He placed those behind the wheels of the trailer to act as a safety backup in case things didn't go so well. They may not hold the load, but they would at least slow my rate of acceleration into either the ditch or Cardinal Marsh! I had spent the previous 10 or 15 minutes trying to figure out, if everything started slipping away, how I would jump from the truck and let the whole works slide into the ditch while still keeping my balance on the road. Good thing I watched plenty of episodes of Mannix as a kid! I really didn't want to do my Mike Connors impersonation if I could avoid it, though.

Once everything was hooked up and the safety blocks were in place, I told Lorne to move slightly to the side of the road with the tractor to catch as much traction from the untraveled portion of the shoulder as possible. Lock the front-wheel assist in on the tractor, hit the differential lock and make sure you give it enough juice to get me out of here!

It was go time. The ponies rumbled in the John Deere PowerTech diesel as The Snake started to uncoil. We hit the magic point at the end of The Snake and I was dying to let go of the brake pedal so my leg could rest. Deere & Co. did not let me down! The Snake tensed up and I made my way to the top of the hill with no problem. I think even The Chairman was impressed as he watched nearby from the road. Lorne wanted to stop when he got to the top of the hill, but I motioned for him to keep going. I wanted a really, really wide gravity cushion before I got out to put this thing back in Park again.

As they unhooked The Snake and put it away again, I went back to the scene of the action and took some pictures. Oh, I also took one during the pull, because you only get those kind of photos on rare occasions. (I hope!) Besides, they'd need something to put up for the photo display at my funeral if it didn't go well and I really don't have many pictures of myself from the last twenty years. Why not go with a Faces of Death montage from my final moments?

Joe Mannix would have been embarrassed by the lack of violence in my outcome. Hey, every day at work doesn't end up with an Emmy for me, Joe!

At least MacGyver would've been proud. I think.

Guy No. 2

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