Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Sheepherder’s New Truck

The Sheepherder’s New Truck

There is a story brewing about Saundra and her grandpa’s Ford pickup. Something about turning 15, taking driver’s training and getting a learner’s permit has motivated her. She is interested in oil changes, carburetor workings, glass pack mufflers, cherry gear shift knobs and new seat covers. We tease that she is getting ready for a Montana double date…that means Saundra will drive with her Rascal-dog in the middle and her date on the other side. She smiled, that appeals to her.

Saundra’s Grandpa Alfred bought this pickup new in 1977 and it is still in good shape with low mileage. Only new pickup he ever bought. He was retired from sheep and cattle and ranching and his priority then was carpentering and fishing. Now thirty years later, the pickup is a classic and about to be spit polished. we wonder aloud how many calves it took to buy a new pickup in 1977.

And all this talking about Grandpa Alfred’s pickup was enough to prime the pump so to speak. Rick began to think about his dad’s 1962 Ford. It was also the only new pickup that his dad ever bought and he paid $4500 for it. That number is significant because it is the same amount of money that Grandpa Bobby had put into parts to repair his old International pickup in the previous three years. Every time they took the darn thing to sheep camp it would quit on them. Just like the old International truck with the rake tooth for a handle, you couldn’t depend on it.

Bobby Jarrett ordered his 1962 four wheel drive pickup with seventeen inch wheels and tires and that gave him 3-4 more inches of clearance in the snow. Rick’s eyes had a faraway look and the story began like this: That pickup had more clearance than any pickup in the world and my dad knew how to drive it. My dad makes me look like an old woman because he never got afraid. Yes, I learned from a master when it comes to driving in the hills. Why, when I was pretty little my dad had a Willys Jeep that looked like a pickup. One time we were going to sheep camp on a narrow road and the front wheel hit a big rock and we tipped over on our side. Crawled out from the upside driver’s window and looked over the edge and we could still see cans and groceries rolling way down the hill. Had we tipped all the way over and rolled, it would have probably killed us. We walked back to Springdale and my dad acted like nothing to it. Chances are we got a ride home and he went back the next day to right the outfit while I stayed home and cried because I always wanted to go along.

I loved to go to sheep camp and all the time I begged to drive. By the time I was eight years old I was driving to sheep camp with regularity. But more than the thrill of driving was the joy that came from being with my dad. There was nothing better than going with my dad to sheep camp and seeing the sheepherder and drinking coffee from a tin cup. I can still smell the coffee being made on the sheep wagon’s pot bellied stove, boiling with the grounds. They would pour me a cup and I’d sit and visit with them and they’d make me feel like a grown up, one of the guys. And if we were lucky, there would be salt mutton and we could eat lunch.

The sheep would stay up there in our mountain pasture until the end of January and the cattle did not come home until the first of March. Every day during January and February we’d go through Springdale and then drive the five miles up Mendenall Creek to the camp to feed hay. We’d drive those tippy little hillsides with a load of hay five bales high. Dennis was our hired man then. He is still alive and he can tell about those drives we made. One day we fell through a bridge. The front tires made it across but the back wheels were just hanging in the air. We had a jack and we just kept putting loose boards under the wheels and eventually we got across.

We bucked the sheep up there in November. Two thousand sheep with forty head of bucks. The sheep grazed on the open range during the day and there was too much country for the bucks to keep up with the ewes so the sheep would all be herded into the bucking corral in the evening. They would breed the ewes at night. There were bunks in the pasture and the herder would fill the bunks with grain for the ewes. Little feeders made in a “V” using two 1x6 boards. Musta been 30 or more. That was quite a job carrying oats from the granary all by hand with five gallon buckets. Then in the morning he would open the sixteen foot gate and stand with a stick to sort the ewes from the bucks. If a buck tried to get out the sheep herder would yell BUCK! And hit the buck on the head. After a week or so when the herder would stand at the gate and yell BUCK!...the bucks would sort themselves and stay back without so much as the swinging of a club. Oh, you should have been there for some of those days.

I remember one winter day my dad was driving up a steep hill side and the sheep had been trailing on that hill side so it was packed with ice. He had a ton of grain in the back for the sheepherder to feed to the sheep and the wheels lost traction and broke loose. We started sliding toward the coulee and I ask if we should jump and dad’s reply was “no we gotta see if we can save this pickup.” Some how we caught on a little piece of sage brush and were able to get stopped and put the chains on. It was always a game to see if you could get by without chaining up…but it was standard procedure to chain up all fours plus do a little shoveling when you went to sheep camp in snowy weather.

In later years after my dad died, I continued the tradition of hauling feed to the Mendenhall and Jarrett Creek pastures. (Named after my great great-grandparents who settled there.). We had 250 cows to feed and we had to get there every day in the winter. Some days snowdrifts would block the road so we would try to go up side hills to get around them. After Chinook winds, there would be a thaw and then things would freeze up again and be slippery as heck. Every day was an adventure.

Just though the gate and across the bridge it was good topsoil and not much rock so it would get deep ruts toward spring. The ruts would fill with snow and then ice. It would be muddy everywhere else so I would drive up the rut. That road winds on a gentle climb for about a quarter of a mile before it turns into a steep son of a gun. Dennis could probably tell the story better…but as I recall we had only gone about 20 yards up the steep part of the hill cruisin’ along with a big load of hay when we spun out and started sliding back wards. With all four wheels locked up we were going back wards at speeds up to 30 miles an hour. Around corners, down grades, no control, could not even see out of the back window… couldn’t even think about steering. It was quite a ride. Just wild the way the pickup stayed in the rut all the way back to the gate. It was just like going down an Olympic Luge Raceway … backwards…with a load of hay on!

Saundra’s question about oil filters broke the spell and we turned back to the task at hand…but something tells me there are more stories where that one came from. I mumbled "Let’s just hope Saundra does not feel compelled to drive her grandpa’s truck on these roads less traveled."

She smiled. That also appeals to her.