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Getting back to nature with a backhoe

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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."

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