Hay Lady–Part Two

My reverie of disaster is necessarily short lived. Jim’s already hooking, swinging and stacking. And I’m up here to show I’m one of the boys. There’s nothing for it. Pulling my leather gloves tight, I grab my two hay hooks and slam them into the sides of the bale at my feet.

Let me pause here for one word about hay hooks: lethal. Like all proper tools, hay hooks have been refined to suit precisely the work for which they’re designed. Although mostly used as a pair, each unit has a slightly different hook geared to its use not as part of a team, but solo. It’s a divine example of function defining form. In my left hand, I have a hook whose arm is short with a hook acutely angled, ideal for stabbing and lifting. In the other hand is one with a longer shaft and a more open hook angle, making it useful for dragging. When I slam the hooks into each end of the three-foot long bale, it’s like hugging a prickly object with sharp prongs. I can lift and place it just so next to the ones Jim’s already laid end to end, string sides up, on the trailer deck.

At least, that’s the theory. By the time I have moved one bale to its final resting place, Jim’s moved five. Before we’ve jointly repositioned and stacked the first fifteen, Bernard’s tractor is back with the next fifteen. We back our way down the 53-foot trailer, placing one bale parallel to the edge and the next two perpendicular to it. By the time we reach the end, we’ve jointly heaved, swung and shoved about eighty bales into place. That’s barely three tons, with seventeen more to go. Already I’m wiped out.

I set my hands on my hips and blow hard. Even though this isn’t a race, I’ve been keeping score. I know this is sad and distorted, and yet, I can’t help it. Even sadder is that it bothers me that I’m losing badly to Jim, who’s sweating like someone in a Turkish bath. That’s from exertion, since he’s set 75% of the bales so far.

A week ago I railed about how women’s work on a ranch seemed so strictly codified. Now I’m thinking the job of offering sweet rolls and a mug of hot coffee to the trucker sounds pretty good.

Before I have a chance to reconsider, let alone massage my quivering arms, fifteen more bales plummet to the deck. We bend to the task, slinging bales to form the next level of a stack that ultimately will teeter seven bales high. That’ll place me over five yard off the ground. If I do manage to stick with the task till the last level is complete, how the hell am I going to get down? It’ll be like standing on my second floor balcony, not a place from which I’d normally have to clamber with hooks in my hands.

Jim and I complete the second level. By now my shoulders are burning and my wrists are so tired I can barely grip my hay hooks. Every part of my back protests each time I grab a bale and I don’t know which direction I could twist that wouldn’t induce an echoing ache. My mouth and lungs are parched from the dust released from nearly seven tons of dried grass thudding onto the deck. Turning around to preserve some misplaced sense of feminine modesty, I hawk and spit, but come up dry. Whatever saliva I started out has evaporated.

I sit on a bale while Jim continues to stack. He’s got a delivery to make and he can’t do the polite thing and wait around for me to get with the program. I’m long past regretting my decision to help load his truck. Now I’m focused on how to secure myself a graceful exit. The notion of food and drink glimmers in the dusty recesses of my brain. Not being the morning baking type, all I can offer would be toast slices with jam. But I’m sure even that would be welcome, since Jim had to drive three hours to get here by 7:00a.m. And even a hardened hay hauler would welcome some cold juice to wash that down. Plus some strong sweet coffee to perk him up for the long drive down the canyon.

“Hey Jim,” I shout, waving to catch his attention. He places his bale, turning to me with a patient smile. “How about I stop interfering with your progress and go get some cold breakfast for you from the house? I can make you a sack lunch for the road, too.” Truck stop food varies from awful to poisonous, so anything I care to send with him will be appreciated.
Jim is all kindness and support. “Well, girl,” he says. “I don’t know if I can manage this without you.” We look at each other, while I smear dust and dirt around my cheeks with my dirty glove. Hay residue is ground into a fine pale green stain on the front of my jeans. And because I stupidly wore sneakers instead of high boots that would be covered by my jeans, my socks are full of prickly stems. My feet feel like they’re clad in hedgehogs. My hair is in scraggles, having lost contact with my original neat braid long ago.

I want to give Jim a hug, first for putting up with me and second for going along with my hastily conceived exit strategy. But there’s a jumble of bales between us. Bernard, who can’t hear what we’re saying since he’s in the tractor, is already on his way back with more. And I have a suspicion that Jim and I are not yet quite on hugging terms. Ever the gentleman, Jim extends his hand to help me over the bale mountain to where I can carefully climb down from the truck.
It’s official. I’m not a hay stacker. Doubtless I never will be. But I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time. Because I showed that I’m game to try. And I make a mean jam sandwich.

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Hay Lady–Part One

Hay has taken over my life. I dream about it, measure it, price it, evaluate it, spit its tobacco-y dust out of my mouth and pick errant shreds of it out of my hair. I’ve rattled and bounced through our hay meadows on a tractor pulling a rake or a baler, watched hawks eyeing the freshly revealed crop of meadow mice from under those bales, seen the late-day sun turn newly baled fields to gold. I can name the grasses that make up our mountain meadow bales and persuade strangers to pay more for it, because it’s better than anyone else’s.

I’m thrilled to pieces to be able to explain what I know about hay to others. Backyard horse proprietors, who previously only knew that they wanted their hay to be green, now are walking, talking fountains of hay wisdom, thanks to me. It’s gratifying.

To work with hay haulers, I’ve memorized hay hauling lingo, so I can converse with the drivers in a manner that’ll put them at ease. I figure if we’re using the same terms, they’ll be more inclined to work for me. This is important, because there’s high demand for their services. All the hay in our county is harvested within the same six-week period. And every rancher wants to get their hay away to customers before the snow comes. The haulers can pick and choose for whom they’ll drive. The best ones have unspoken contracts to haul for certain ranches and if I want them to haul for me it’s like the line at the deli counter: take a number and wait your turn.

In my mission to jump the cue, I’m a fountain of arcane data, able to chat about the total length of a typical hay hauling tractor trailer rig, highway height and weight limits, how wide an entry they need in order to turn into someone’s barn yard, and how much I should pay for our hay to be hauled just about anywhere in the lower forty-eight. I know a “tractor” is the engine and cab part of the big rig, and a “cab-over” is a tractor without a snout. There’s no place to sleep in a cab-over, so anyone who drives one figures his drive will be short enough that he can get home to his own, stationary, bed.

A hay hauling trailer has a “head rack” against which the bales of hay are squeezed to pack them into a secure, safely transportable load. A driver whose trailer doesn’t have one is a driver unaccustomed to the work of loading six hundred hay bales by hand and then delivering it all in one piece to someone 150 miles away. And that could mean trouble. I look for trailers with a conveyor belt built into the bed, which mechanically transfers the entire stack of hay down ramps onto the ground on delivery. Clients love them. And anything my clients love makes me happy.

The time comes in every hay lady’s life, when if you’re gonna talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. It’s one thing to know without a shadow of a doubt that our bales average seventy pounds. It’s quite another to fling all that dry grass around personally. One day I set myself the task of doing the hay equivalent of summiting Everest. I’m going to help load a hay truck.
For weeks I’ve watched drivers with a gut big enough to obscure their belt buckle, strap on stiff leather hay chaps, grab hay grapples that would make Captain Hook green with envy, and load their trucks from our hay stacks. “How hard can this be?” I ask myself. “These guys spend their whole day sitting and driving, and they can do it.” Yes, I come from a life where I’ve been adept not just at accomplishing whatever I set out to do, but doing it better than most. And yes, I’ve now spent months outdoors and active. Still, one side of me tentatively raises its hand, wishing to point out that fitness is relative. It respectfully wishes to remind me that every time I heft a bale and bump it up to my pickup bed with my knee, I heave a secret sigh of relief that I only have to lift one. Now I’m offering to lift three hundred, a disconnect between wishful thinking and reality that is startling in its optimism, disturbing in its naivete.

Jim, today’s hauler, is waiting in the stack yard when we arrive to start loading. As I toss my hay hooks onto the bed and clamber up he looks at me with surprise. “What you know, girl?” he offers, to cover what I imagine is both his pleasure at having some loading assistance and his dismay that the helper for today is me. Having sent the doubt-monger to sit in the corner, I am impressed with what I’m about to do, giddy that I’m going to join the fraternity of true hay acolytes.

Bernard plunges the tractor grapple down, and hooks fifteen bales at once, which he swings over and carefully sets down on the bare trailer bed. As work arenas go, the bed of a trailer is a far cry from my former office. Although long, it’s only eight feet wide, which means I’m doing a hay cha-cha-cha on the equivalent of an executive’s desk. Instead of files, this particular desktop now is littered with a jumble of hay bales, which we have to straighten and place in a precise pattern if we’re to fit the maximum number of bales into this load.

Stems of dried grass litter the surface, making it as slippery as soap film on a shower floor. I am so aware of all the tragedies that could befall me in this small space that I hardly dare move. Before even arriving on the trailer bed, any of the bales could loosen from the tractor grapple and hit me, changing the connection between my head and my neck forever. A chance misstep as I maneuver over the cluttered bales, and my newly repaired ACL is history. Bumping into Jim could send me flailing off the trailer for a long unhappy fall to the ground, breath gone, back cracked. One hay hook losing its purchase on a bale would mean an instant rotater cuff tear as that bale’s full weight wrenches my shoulder out of its socket. And the damage inflicted if a hay hook finds a purchase in my thigh instead of a bale doesn’t bear dwelling on.

Click here for Part Two…..

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Exciting news….the printed word

One of the great pleasures of our recent trips, is the delight I get reliving all the details as I write about them.   A handful of articles has recently appeared, most of them with my trademark sly humor spicing up the tales.   Some are quick reads, others are features of a bit more length.  Here are the links, with photos which I hope will inspire you to read them!

A Roll in the Hay in Northern Italy

Burma’s Chin State Day Festival

Border crossing guide between Van, Turkey and Tabriz, Iran

Boating up Burma’s Chindwin River

What I Saw on Italy’s Streets

And now for some thrilling news (drum roll, silence, coughs from the audience):

My book has been picked up by a publisher!
  This is the memoir I wrote about our trials and travails getting ready for and then driving the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge.   That’s the rally we did in the 1940 LaSalle in 2007, the trip that started all this crazy driving nonsense.

Over the next 5-6 months, I’ll be revising and finalizing the text, selecting the final title, figuring out what the cover should look like and helping with the publicity.   Right now the book is slated to appear in hardcover with color photos (wow!).   But that all could change.   The book’s on the publisher’s Spring 2013 list, which means release between April and August of next year.   Can you tell I’m excited?



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Part I
Life is not all about Burma these days. Take Friday night, March 30, for instance.  Bernard and I spent the evening at Paradise Lanes. There were perfect whiskey sours, handmade by Ms. Regina. A basket of what I know I’ve already labeled the world’s best french fries. And… and…and… I discovered a new favorite taste sensation: deep fried mac & cheese. Golden crispy on the outside, velvety salty starchy on the inside. I could make a meal out of those critters. Oh wait.  I just did!!
Part II
Defrosting a Bird:
Bernard saved a bird! When the temperature plummeted the afternoon of April 3, he noticed a little grey bird hunkered down in front of the garage. He bent over to inspect it, thinking it would fly away, but it didn’t move. So he took it inside and put it under a collander with some water in one of those little bowls that usually hold soy sauce. The bird pooped in gratitude.

Later, when I came home, we shifted the bird to a quieter corner, placed him on a pizza sheet (I whispered that as we would need 3 and 20 more of him in order to bake pie that he needn’t worry), covered him with an airy gauze umbrella that normally keeps flies off of cheese trays, added a little dish of grass seeds for his dining pleasure, and waited. He executed a few modest hops of joy, showing he was recovering.

With the temperature reaching the level of “mighty cold” we wanted to keep him indoors for the night, but not at the expense of him bashing into his gauze umbrella. So we flung cheese cloth over it to darken the interior, the way you do with canaries and such. The cheese cloth let enough air in so he wouldn’t suffocate. That was my idea!! Lo, he went to sleep!

Next morning when we came down for breakfast he was having a good lie in, but the noise and the sound of OJ being pressed awoke him. When we sat down for breakfast, he sat down for his. Or rather he hopped about, nibbling seeds and flinging them hither and yon. So we took the pizza tray and umbrella abode outside and offered him freedom. He took it, never looking back.
Part III
Never before seen this early, 50 elk came over Custer Mountain before dusk on April 6. Normally we don’t see them for 6-8 more weeks. What a strange season it’s been. Does this mean we’re going to have Spring, rather than just going directly from Winter to Summer?!

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The Joy of Game-Part Three

The elk hide, which seemed to weigh the same as a fifty pound bag of grain, but about was slippery as the Coppertone baby’s bottom, got folded flesh side in, tumbled into a garbage bag and then heaved into the chest freezer, where it stayed frozen and impervious to bacteria.  Weeks later I’d bring it to the tanners in Denver.  This was not a leather shop, but a triple-wide storage unit, two thirds of which was stacked with heavily salted elk, deer, moose, goat and bear hides awaiting shipment. The owner sat happily grinning, enveloped in a reek of blood and fat that made me gag.  As soon as I stepped out of the car, his hunting dogs approached, running in crazed circles around me, sniffing and licking their chops.   Normally I’m very chummy with dogs, but given the amount of gory hide parts in the immediate vicinity, these were two canines for whom I would not squat down to let lick my face.

Source: google.com via Dina on Pinterest


“Hey, how ya doin?!” the owner shouted as he recognized me, making me welcome even though I came only once a year.   He waved a hand mucky with animal gore, globs of fat clinging to his fingernails, his hands so slimy that shaking one was out of the question. I waved back.

“Got your elk again, did ya?” he said, nodding and making celebratory noises over the obvious.

“Well, Bernard did,” I offered, not wanting to be mistaken for someone who would shoot an animal.

“Doin’ the same as last year?” was his rejoinder, an opening which required me to step inside his lair, where I would have to do the polite thing and spend a few minutes discussing the relative merits of tanning with hair on or hair off.  I was fascinated by the whole enterprise of preserving animal skins, by the ghoulish heaps of hides stacked twenty high, each one slathered in a preserving layer of coarse salt. But the odor was so densely of warm blood and dead tissue, and the sight of his forearms slick and smeared with unspecified oleaginous material so retch-inducing, that it was all I could do to stand civilly in front of him. Flinging out a few relevant questions referring to how business was going, such as “Do you have more hides this year?”  and “What are people bringing in?”  I sidled toward the office side of the business, where I could stand in the open doorway gulping in buckets of fresh air.

As for the elk meat itself, The Joy struck me as sadly limited in its advice, though it did offer this: “Game shot in an unsuspecting moment is more tender….than game that is chased.”  Anyone who imagined a man could catch up to a running elk and then be steady enough to fire a true shot, had either never seen an elk move, never hunted, or both.  Besides, why would Bernard run when he could sit still and have the elk walk right by?

Source: google.com via Dina on Pinterest


On the subject of aging, The Joy was silent.  Despairing of finding much useful in it for my current culinary challenges I did what I never thought I would do:  I banished it amongst the lesser cookbooks, squeezing it ignominiously between a muffin booklet and The Cooking of Southwest France.  Through judicious questioning of neighbors who’d grown up hunting, we determined that elk, like beef, or geese for that matter, improved with aging. However, as with chile recipes, each person had a different length of time that they said was perfect.  Though we wanted to eat some of Bernard’s first elk right away, we were advised to hang the carcass in the woods for a few days.  That was an anxious time, as we envisioned coyotes and foxes feasting during the night, us returning to find a bedraggled carcass with chunks nipped out of it.  The bigger problem, of course, were the flies who loved to lay their eggs in warm, moist, skinless flesh.  To keep them out we draped the carcass in a white sheet, figuring that also might convince coyotes the carcass was actually the ghost of elks past.

We cut that first elk down a day early, and laid her lovingly in the pickup bed. Her pose was undignified, legs sticking straight up in the rictus of rigor mortis.  I gingerly stroked the animal’s head, avoiding the reproachful stare of her mellow brown eyes.  Still, I sat with her in the bed as the truck jounced over the dirt road to the highway, staring at the globs of congealed blood now streaking the pickup bed.  I was both mortified and proud, saddened and hungry.

The man we delivered her to was our neighbor Bob, who ran the area campground and, more importantly, used to be butcher.  He transformed that glorious animal into chunks wrapped in white butcher paper, each package stamped in red with “rib eye,” “tenderloin,” and “hamburger.” The legs sticking up from the pickup bed, the long lashes above staring eyes, these became a passing memory en route to a glorious meal.  While Bernard carried the crates of wrapped meat to our car, Bob unfolded a square of paper towel and handed me two bloody teeth.  “Elk ivories,”  he said. “Each elk has only two of these.  They’re real ivory.  The rest are bone.  Hollow.  Which dry out like all those old bones you find in the fields.  These will stay ivory-colored forever. People collect them and make jewelry from them. Thought you might like to have them.”  Like?  I was thrilled.

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In exchange for Bob’s butchering services, we traded hunting rights.  In years to come we used his walk-in cooler to hang our elk for ten days of aging.  He’d drive to our north meadows with his wife any evening he wished, where they’d listen to the elk bugling.  And once Bernard was done with hunting, he’d bring his rifle before dawn and hunt for an elk of his own.
That first year, 200 pounds of elk entered a freezer already stacked with 100 pounds of grass-fed beef from a neighbor’s cow, 75 pounds of lamb bought at the livestock sale to support one of our summer ranch hands, and another 75 pounds of pork representing a half side of hog raised by our farrier.  Accustomed to buying a steak or two at a time, we’d been carried away with enthusiasm by the ready availability of good, pasture-raised meat. If Bernard and I each ate half a pound of meat every day for a year, we still would not be able to empty the freezer.   And that’s without allowing for an occasional roast chicken, let alone some shrimp curry now and then.

Source: google.com via Dina on Pinterest


No longer did we offer the bottle of wine that used to be our preferred hostess gift when invited out.  Now Bernard and I entered friends’ homes laden with whatever package of meat we could grab.  Elk sausage, thick-cut pork chops, lamb ribs and 95% lean chopped beef, decorated with a festive ribbon, graced freezers from Walden to Boulder, eliminating the awkward question about whether our hostess was expected to open and serve what we’d brought.
That first year I was intent on avoiding the failure of our first goose. Besides, what one can do with an inedible 15-pound bird didn’t extrapolate to two hundred pounds of elk. I’d heard about how tough elk was, how difficult it was to cook well.  The Joy advised leaving well enough alone, cooking the elk pretty much au natural.  I didn’t trust them. Singed by The Joy’s lack of assistance on goose matters, I bought in its stead a cookbook entitled Cooking Your Game, which instructed me to become a devotee of tenderizing marinades.  The elk didn’t seem to benefit.

One day, in a hurry to get something on the table, I left off my usual concoction and we grilled an elk steak naked except for salt and pepper.  And so we discovered that elk was delicious as is.  My various tenderizing potions, and the book that advised them, went in the trash. The Joy returned to pride of place on my cookbook shelf, within easy reach for advice the next time a wild animal carcass confronted me on my kitchen counter.

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