Sunday, October 21, 2007

Winter Wonderland

Yes, winter is almost here. It is here in the Rockies - they are getting snow this week. As I write this, Loveland Pass is chain restricted, as is eastbound I70 at the Eisenhower Tunnel. So, snow and ice are a fact of life for me for a while.

Most people think of winter with a fondness in their hearts. Memories of hot chocolate beside warm fires, children with rosy cheeks building snowmen, the stillness of a fresh snow, and the safety of being behind warm walls watching through frosted panes as the world is changed into something surreal and wonderful.

Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but attitudes are a bit different on the Poor Farm. I have memories of nearly frozen extremities from being outside feeding equally miserable cattle. Memories of breaking ice on water tanks so the cattle had something to drink, and doing that several times a day. Memories of struggling to get a tractor to start so the cattle could be fed, or snow moved out of the way. During one blizzard as a teenager, we dragged bales over the drifts that had covered the feedlot fence to get something for the cattle to eat. Of course, there were the wonderful times we lost power for several days. Just this last winter, The Poor Farm was without power for nine days after a particularly severe ice storm. Apparently, I'm on the "end of the line." The weather wasn't bad for all those days - it just took the local cooperative that long to get everything fixed upline from me.

This is just an example of the damage to one line on one road. It even pulled down a string of high power towers - the huge steel towers that send electricity from a power plant. What a mess it was.

This picture was taken this last winter as well. It was west of Meeker Colorado on C64. I had unloaded tanks in Vernal that morning, and ran into the snow in Colorado on the way home. this truck was loaded with sheep. The road was blocked and traffic stopped until the sheep that were alive were offloaded and herded into a paddock next to the road, several hundred yards away. Since I wasn't really into getting snowed in that area with a day cab, I got out and helped herd sheep until they let us through. I'm not sure why he lost control, but it is a very narrow road with dropoffs at the shoulder. We haul oversize on it year round - with escorts (required by Colorado on that road).

This is a picture of a truck I drove hauling grain and feed products - I got out of it about thirteen years ago. It was a bit of a heavy hauler - I could gross 85,500 lbs as opposed to a five axle rig at 80,000 lbs in Kansas. One of my main "runs" was out of Emporia KS to Ingalls KS hauling protein supplement. The cattle and grain company that I hauled for had a feed mill in Emporia and feedlots in western Kansas they supplied. The protein supplement they made had a tendency to "set up" in the bins (they did on the trailer, too!), so inventory was "just in time." The feedlots didn't want the stuff sitting in their bins turning into a large chunk, so they wanted just enough to feed.

Just a bit of background info on cattle feeding at feedlots: most have progressive rations. The starter rations have more roughage, and as the cattle are acclimated to one ration, they are upgraded to one with less roughage and more grain and supplements. The cattle gain weight far faster this way. If for some reason the cattle "go off feed," the process has to be stepped back because they won't eat the "hotter" rations. This costs the feedlot and their customers a lot of money. Feedlots don't generally own the cattle they feed - they are custom feeders and have a variety of programs for cattle investors or a customer can ship their cattle in to be fed to bring them to slaughter weight. So, you don't want the cattle to go off feed. You want them eating like machines and gaining weight if there is a profit to be made. Margins are tight even when the market is good.

So, I had picked up a load of protein at Emporia, and the weather west of Hutchinson was pretty bad. I had to deliver the load the next morning, or the feedlot would run out of the supplement. This could, and probably would, throw the entire lot off feed. I couldn't stop and crawl in the sleeper, which was what I really wanted to do. Pressure? You bet. Ya think I wanted to be responsible for throwing a whole feedlot worth of cattle off feed? Not so much.It normally took about two and a half hours to drive from Hutchinson to my boss's place. It took me about six hours that night.

That trip is burned into my memory like a soldering iron on wood (head made of wood? Be quiet). Everything was great until I was a few miles west of Hutch. The snow was blowing and visibility was just beyond the hood. There wasn't much snow accumulation at first, but I started to break small drifts and the road was becoming covered. I left Reno county, and about halfway through Stafford county, I fell in behind a snow plow. Which was a good thing. He was going a lot slower than I was, but oh well - I had a freshly plowed road to drive on. Oh, yeah!

But when he got to the Edwards county line, he turned around and went back. The state boys in Edwards county were apparently at home, warm and comfy, because they sure as hell hadn't been out on the road since the first snowflake fell. The road got pretty rough - I was breaking drifts and falling to bare pavement, then snowpack - all alternating. When I got to Ford county, there was evidence that snowplows had been there, but the wind and snow had filled in a lot of their work.

The real excitement came when I went through Bellefont. US50 curves around the tiny spot on the map, and I could see a car ahead of me going through the curves. It was moving, but as the road curved, I lost 'em.

I came around the gentle curve and spotted the car. I realized it wasn't moving. No brake lights or flashers, just fracking parked in the middle of the road. Okay, so I'd have to steer around them. No big deal.

Big deal. Steering input wasn't equaling output. I was steering with little result. Possible jackknife city happening here. I fed in a bit more steering angle and finally saw some results. The truck was moving to the left of the car, and I rumbled by them. I hope I gave them a heart attack. After I picked mine up off the floor and put it back, it did occur to me that I had the twenty two wheeled monster pointed at the ditch on the left side of the road. Steering it to the right seemed to work as well as going to the left. It finally came around, and I was trucking onward in the correct lane.

When I got to Dodge City, I had a decision to make. At the time, the bypass wasn't a Super Two lane road, in fact, it was narrow and had some pretty good dropoffs away from the shoulder, with no guards. If a truck went off roading there, it wouldn't be good - maybe a twenty or thirty foot drop. Through town it was.

Everything was fine until I got to the truck stop on the east side of town. The highway is divided there. Pandemonium reigned. The truck stop was full, and trucks were parked in the entrances and on the road - in fact, the whole westbound lane was completely blocked by trucks parked willy nilly. I had to move over to the eastbound lanes and drive by, running the red light there. It was icy and snowpacked, no one was moving, and I wasn't going to stop and risk getting stuck.

I finally made it to my boss's place at Cimarron. I put some fuel on, and parked for the rest of the night. I didn't set my brakes - they'd have frozen and I'd have really been parked. The lot was level, so there was no danger of rolling away, and I'd have to roll through a blanket of snow as well.

The next morning, the roads were closed. I followed a snowplow over to the feedyard, and delivered the load. They were just about out, and damn glad to see me. All the drift busting had pushed the plastic bumper up quite a ways. There were a couple of sheet metal straps used as braces that had buckled. I heated them up with a torch and straightened them out, so there was basically no damage.

I am a gearhead. I enjoy operating mechanical things. I've sacrificed much of my hearing to straight pipes and noisy tractors. And it's experiences like this that have put white highlights in my beard and hair. I've had quite a few similar drives, but not as long as this one. Sometimes, I'm even able to stop, get a room, and wait it out. Believe me, that is my preference.

So, remember when it's snowing out, if it is all sunshine and lollipops for you - great! But it is highly likely that someone out there isn't enjoying the weather as much as you. Like me, for instance. Or any of my neighbors with cattle. Or any rural electric coop linemen. I think you get the idea.


LBJ said...

I thought runways were scary in the snow. At least ours are cleared and plowed.

Bob's Blog said...

Now I feel guilty that we had so much fun in the snow today!

Anonymous said...

I am a Bostonian and am not looking forward to the snow.