Getting back to nature with a backhoe

We moved to Whitney Valley April 16. April 18, I started flood-irrigating with hand tools, learning where all the ditches ran across 800 acres of meadow as I worked toward a good crop of hay. I repaired division fences on the ranch and cattle fences.

The caretaker before me had thrown spark-plug wires and distributor cap in frustration when the small red tractor quit across the river from the house. I gathered everything up. Snow melted and the ground dried. My wife, Laura, and I drove through forest along the base of the ridge to the tractor. I hooked a chain to the car, sat on the tractor, and Laura pulled me home.

Bill came out and overhauled the tractor. I used it to pull the four-wheeled trailer, 16 feet long and eight feet wide. The back blade, hooked behind the tractor and tipped so one corner cut into the earth, was a clumsy way to dig a ditch, but it beat cutting the weeds with a hazel hoe and deepening the ditch with a shovel, so I used the tractor where the ground was dry enough to support it.

The tipped blade threw the sod from the ditch to one side. I loaded long strips of sod on the trailer, hauled them, and built up a washed-out ditch bank and a washed-out dike. Caretakers hadn't tried to repair much for years, probably because they had to do most of the work with hand tools.

I drove 20 miles down the river road to the owners' home ranch to get my check and gasoline for my pickup for the next month's ranch work. I assessed the machinery at the home ranch: an actual ditch machine. That would work slick up at Whitney.

Mike said, "Well, that ditch machine's broke. We haven't been able to get a shaft for it."

A backhoe and a dump truck sat near the gas tank.

For the next three years, whenever I asked for the backhoe, John or Mike said, "Well, we got a lot of work down here to do with that right now."

I said, "OK. I have plenty to do and we're getting a lot of ground wet already."

Jim told me later that he spoke up for me. "That fella you got working up there at Whitney's got ambition, but he has to have that backhoe a while if you want him to get all the hay you can get up there."

The fourth year, I drove the backhoe up to Whitney. No trailer. Even though I had good ear protectors, that tractor was loud. The heavy backhoe hung back of the rear wheels, and the tractor bounced up the gravel road, as if it would raise its front wheels toward the sky if I drove as fast as the tractor would go, which wasn't much. Worn hydraulic controls let the boom seep toward the downhill side. That shifting weight made the tractor more unstable. I reached back to the controls every three or four minutes and adjusted the boom. The trip home took awhile.

Regret that I'd asked to use the thing competed with my pleasure in the beautiful day. Sunshine and summer won. I pulled my ear protectors tight and drove and watched deer and grass and flowers and marmots and trees grow in spring sunshine.

Over many years, silt had settled in ditches until some places were nearly blocked. I dug dirt out and piled it beside ditches. Because of badly worn control valves, the boom skipped low and medium speeds and went into full speed. Rapid sideways jerks jarred the tractor and me every time I swung a bucket of dirt to the side. I used the backhoe two or three hours each day, and then let the old yellow machine sit while I repaired fence or worked ditches with the red tractor or a shovel.

Laura drove me down to the home ranch, and I drove the dump truck back. I loaded dirt into the truck with the tractor, hauled the dirt to where I needed it, and dumped piles of dirt I could shovel later. John said he needed the backhoe soon, so I increased my hours on the machine. I needed to move a lot of dirt while I had the machine.

I reset washed-out culverts, set culverts in ditches in new locations, and improved dikes that moved irrigation water past low ground. I took home the backhoe and truck.

I finished the details with my shovel and the red tractor. Whitney Valley was quiet again. By the time snow fell, I had the irrigation in better shape than it had been for years, ready for spring water to spread over more ground.

The next spring and summer, plentiful water ran across the wild mountain meadows. Ducks and geese appreciated the water, as did the small birds that nest in marshy areas. Whitney Valley grew green and abundant with myriad forms of life, multitudinous colors, and odors in clean mountain air.

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