Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bringing in the Hay

Early July marks the beginning of the hiking season - the time when all sensible people are out enjoying the high country, probing the retreating snowline as it uncovers the vast riches of the wilderness. I, however, through obligation and a less than steady source of income, must spend a month of summer waiting for the hay. Only a few days are actually spent hauling the hay; most of the time is spent hanging around the house waiting for farmers to call us. Time that could have been spent hiking is instead spent waiting for the silent phone to ring, and when the call does come, it is usually to tell us that the hay has been delayed by another week due to the long range forecast predicting a 20% chance of light mist.

Various vehicles are used to haul hay, and few were designed for the task. I have seen some people hauling hay in pickups barely wide enough for two bales to be placed lengthwise, stacking them so high that the front wheels barely touch the ground! Most hay trucks I have used are no younger than 25 years of age, and though they are tough and can haul a lot of hay, they are prone to breakdowns.

     This year, our hay truck woes were worse than ever before. We needed 300 bales for our own barn, and we had borrowed a large truck and trailer from a friend we knew. However, at the end of the first load we found a trail of liquid behind the truck-the transmission pump had disintegrated. No matter, a phone call later and AAA had whisked the vehicle away, and we were quickly away in our own, smaller, older truck. It wasn't until we reached the hay field that the brake line began to fail, and by the time we were on our way home with a hundred bales, we were forced to pull over and make a second call to AAA. We managed to get a friend to come and haul our trailer for us with his giant dodge truck. We were almost to the barn when the trailer bottomed out and unearthed an aged behemoth of a boulder, which promptly wedged itself and high centered the trailer. An hour later, we had managed to dig a pit deep enough to pull the boulder out, and allowed our friend to escape. It wasn't until after 9 PM that we finished unloading the trailer.

      There is also a  great variation in the size and quality of barns. There may very well be barns that are designed to provide easy hay loading, that are well ventilated, and which were built with a functioning level. If there are barns that posses all of these qualities, then I have yet to find them. There are the barns that began life as chicken coops, garages, and sheds of mysterious origin. There are the barns that were built out of whatever happened to be lying around, and would be considered run down and cramped by the occupants of a third-world shanty town. Some barns were built long ago to contain loose hay, their roofs high enough to inspire fear in the heartiest stacker of modern hay bales. The roads that access these barns are equally abominable; varying from narrow, twisting alleys to wide mires that suck at tires.

      Different farmers have different styles of doing the hay. Some farmers are more laid back, while others stand over you with bull whips, ready to jump down the throat of anyone who so much as suggests a rest. Some meticulously care for their fields, hawk-eyed for any weed that dares trespass, while others happily cultivate dandelions, thistles and blackberry vines. There are wealthy farmers, who use new equipment that spits out bales that are identical clones of each other; each the ideal size and shape-not too heavy and not too light. Then there are farmers whose balers were old half a century ago, and which produce bales that look as if they were assembled by Doctor Frankenstein!

The Motley Crew

     The traditional farmer is approximately 70 years old and either rake thin or approximately spherical. Their apparent age and physical shape is no indicator of their actual strength and endurance. I have met several wizened old farmers who can still toss bales five feet above their heads! The typical hay-hauler, on the other hand, is generally about 15 years old. There are some, like me, who have stuck with it, but a few years of backbreaking work, swirling, lung-choking dust, and rattling hay ladders just waiting to separate one's finger from one's hand, all done in 90 degree weather, tends to encourage one to seek other forms of employment.
      But, as luck would have it, I am built for haying. Short legs, long arms, and wide, muscular shoulders cause random farmers to stop me on the street and beg me to haul hay for them. After all, they can pay me the same as some wimpy teenager, and have me do the work of an entire crew of teenagers for the price of one! However, I fear that if I were to continue down the path to a career in farming, I would end up as the spherical breed of farmer. If only I could convert the bulk of my arms into long, muscular legs, I would be a hiking machine!
    In an effort to reapportion my body, I don my hiking boots and grab my backpack. The mountains are beckoning and the sense of freedom growing. But as I open the door, the phone begins to ring............