As I like to tell my friends who live a couple to several hours south of me, winter comes but once a year to the northern tier of counties in Iowa . . . and it likes to stay for five months, minimum. The Iowa Beef Expo is usually held in mid-February each year at the state fairgrounds in Des Moines. When I have attended in the past, it has almost been depressing to get down there and see bare lawns and a complete lack of snowdrifts and snow piles everywhere. Yet, the people who live there would have you believe that their winter has been brutal.
Within the same seven-day span as my episode with a burst water line, I knew I had to get some corn hauled to town. We used to grind all of our own feed when we had hogs, but when it's just cattle to feed these days, it's a whole lot easier to have someone else do it for us. That saves me from having to go to the other farm (where the corn is) a couple times a month and haul a full feed mill back up the hill to the farm where the cattle are. In the past, Trusty Sidekick Lorne would always grind feed and deliver it. Add in a little bit of ice on the roads and those small hills between the farms suddenly get much, much bigger. I really don't care for climbing steep hills with full loads after my past experience with that activity.
That's why I prefer to have the co-op deliver the ground feed to me. In fact, I have been in at least two or three situations in the last few weeks where someone I stopped by to see was on the phone getting help lined up to pull a feed truck out of a bad situation. Offering to stop by and take pictures didn't really seem like much help to them. Something about "piling on" kept coming up.
To make my point to myself even more, I had taken a shortcut home from the airport after dropping Sherill off for her trip the week before. Right before the big hill I was about to descend, a guy in a pickup ahead of me held his hand out to stop me. We chatted briefly and he informed me that a semi was stuck partway up the hill, so I probably didn't want to go ahead.
I turned around in the next driveway and snapped a photo out my rear window of the semi's near-success. Been there, done that, got a story. Made a mental note not to do it again if I could avoid it.
Then, on my way to get Sherill after the water line issue, I found yet another semi beached in a driveway on the highway. Only a few days apart and I'd found two people in bad situations who drive for a living. This looked like a hint to be taken.
Guy No. 1 informed me about that time that he had the semi loaded with corn, and that my inventory at the co-op for feed use was dangerously low. This being northeast Iowa in winter, there was more snow to move before I could get the load to town. I fired up the semi to get it warmed up. Meanwhile, I got back in the skid loader to move snow in the yard. Backing a pickup or a car up and leaving the yard isn't that big a deal. Getting the semi moved around effortlessly and successfully requires a bit more geography. All of those years of delivering hay with a pickup and gooseneck flatbed were kind of like training wheels for my eventual graduation to a semi. I've pulled into enough yards with a load of hay on to know that the ones that were clear of snow were the best. The ones where a minimal path was cleared for a car were no fun at all. ("Oh, I guess I thought I'd moved enough snow for me to get in the yard. You take up a lot more space with that trailer. Let me see if my neighbor has a log chain . . . and a tractor . . . and time.")
I moved snow for about twenty minutes to a half hour. The guys at The Steel Shop, where my cousin, Merlin The Metal Magician works, had made me an eight-foot bucket for my skid loader last year. They did a great job. It's really handy for the big snow cleanup jobs like this one.
With the yard cleared out enough to get myself in and out with the semi, I filled out the required paperwork for my diabetes (to record what my blood sugar is when driving, thereby keeping my endocrinologist satisfied and signing off on all of my required federal paperwork to have a CDL as a diabetic) and hit the road.
Just as I pulled up to the corner at the intersection down the road, the semi quit. It didn't sputter at all; it just quit. That made me think it may be something electrical. I tried starting it again and it didn't want to fire. The engine would crank and crank, but it wouldn't start. This was not good. Being stranded wasn't at the top of my favorites list, but being stranded partway through an intersection was even further down the list.
Call a mechanic
That's when I decided to place a call to my truck mechanic. I described what had happened and he thought I either had an electrical problem, or more likely, the fuel had gelled, what with it being around zero that morning. The good news was that I had a very popular problem that day. My call was the third or fourth one like it that he'd received so far and we were still in the 10:00 hour! It felt better when it wasn't just me.
We reviewed one other critical piece of information -- the fact that I wasn't sitting in the yard at home at the moment. That got both his blood pressure and his adrenaline going. Then I took the edge off for him when I let him know I wasn't in the middle of the intersection on the highway, or halfway through the stoplights in town. It was just a gravel road in the country.
"On your road, or which one?" he asked.
Yep, straight west of the buildings, I told him. But I'm not at the stop sign. I'm kind of in the next lane of traffic going north-south.
"Oooooohhhhh....." came the response, in such a way that I knew this wrench wrangler was painting himself a fairly accurate mental picture.
"Well, that's not good. If you've got enough air pressure yet, maybe you can release the air brakes and put a tractor on to pull yourself home in Neutral," he suggested. "Then I'll stop by when I get the other guys handled and see what we can do. Do you have a shop where you can pull it in?"
Nope, I'm the only guy in rural America who doesn't have a heated Taj Mahal for my equipment with Wainscoting, a full kitchen, a big screen TV and enough inventory to restock a dealer's parts department.
We decided that working on the truck in the yard may be our best bet. That would at least be an improvement over working on it in the middle of the intersection.
Guy No. 1 was summoned from his season-long tax preparation. We decided that we'd put the loader tractor on the back of the trailer and hook The Snake to it. Pull the trailer back home, then pull the semi into the yard and wait for the mechanic to get there. Fairly simple.
Yeah, well, here's the thing. You don't simply hook on and drive the tractor back down the road. It started going fairly well. That's when I got reflective, and not just because my morning was going by my eyes in slow-motion Reverse. We can look back at all of the advances we've made as a nation the last couple of centuries and find a pretty long list. Toward the top of that list for me at that particular moment was probably power steering. Power steering is pretty handy as you drive. When it's gone, you really appreciate it. Pulling a semi down the road backwards without the ability to steer with one finger is not the same without power steering. I was cranking the wheel with both hands to make sure we stayed somewhere close to straight without heading toward either ditch. Doing anything slow and easy isn't Guy No. 1's style.
Just to keep it interesting, a delivery truck decided this was the best time for him to drive by. Why make this episode any easier for me? Did he stop and wait for us to go by? Heck no. He let up on the accelerator just enough to be going a bit too fast instead of way too fast. He knows I like a challenge.
We got a little bit beyond the halfway point of our journey and my progress came to a stop. I got out of the cab to have a meeting with the other half of my tug-of-war team. We talked geography and physics. The towing had been working quite well. Now we had something else to consider.
As I was being pulled closer to home, I would go over the slightest rise in the road and then go down a very, very small grade before meeting up with the driveway.
So, hit the brakes, you're saying.
Good idea, but if I hit them too hard, I may use whatever air pressure I had left and then it was entirely possible I'd be freewheeling it down the rest of the slope. The last thing I wanted to gain by then was momentum.
That's when we decided to expand the team. We'd go to the other place and get another, smaller tractor to hook on the front. We'd stop by and grab another executive to put in it. He'd act as sort of an anchor. It's not like he'd suddenly be able to pull me ahead if I picked up too much speed. He'd more likely slow my rate of momentum going backwards. When we got to the level ground in front of the driveway, he would then pull me forward into the yard.
I reviewed a couple of key points with The Chairman Emeritus. He could look in his mirrors to see what was going on behind him, so he didn't have to turn around, which he doesn't like to do. When we went from reverse back to forward, he should swing wide going into the driveway and he should take his time getting me there. This was not a race.
Personally, I enjoyed the irony of the whole thing. When we got a semi a couple years ago, we widened out both driveways at the two farms. My preference was to go really wide. The Chairman felt there was no need whatsoever to go as wide as I wanted to -- thirty or forty extra feet. An extra six or eight feet would be plenty. We've gotten semis in this yard successfully for forty years as wide as it was, so why bother adding any more than the bare minimum?
There's going to be a time when you will wish it were wider than what you have, I said at the time. Show me all the people who have said, "I built my house way too big. Too much closet space. Too much counter top space. Way too many electrical outlets. I wish I didn't have so much parking space, too."
So we built the driveway "wider than what you need." This particular day was the reason why. As I cranked the wheel to get myself back into the yard, I was kind of wishing we'd gone another thirty feet wider. My tracks would indicate that may not have been the worst idea, but this wasn't exactly my DOT final exam.
The wrench wrangler showed up a couple hours later. We tried starting the engine again to no avail. That's when we pulled the fuel filter off and found it to contain some less-than-liquid fuel. A new filter was installed and the fuel lines bled to get fresh fuel in them and even more fuel treatment was added. The truck fired off and I was all set to get corn to my cattle for a while.
The whole episode still didn't make me want to get a feed mill again and climb the hills myself with a full load. That would cost a fortune, because I'd probably do each ascent Sir Edmund Hillary-style and plant a flag each time I reached the summit.
Jeff Ryan is Guy No. 2 in the operation of Two Guys Farming, Inc., near Cresco, IA.
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