MHT Days 28-31: Hay There
Before I get to my activity for the past three days, I’ll quickly finish up the Corps of Discovery’s final days on the Missouri River. Clark and his party, having emerged from the Yellowstone River, waited several days on the Missouri for Lewis and his group to rejoin them, which happened on August 12, 1806. Once all members of the expedition reunited, reaching St. Louis was in sight. Two days later, moving quickly downstream, they again met Hidatsa and Mandan Indians near present-day Mandan, N.D. They stayed several days, attempting to persuade some chiefs to join them and go to Washington, D.C. to meet President Jefferson, but had little success.
While at the Mandan Villages, the permanent party of 33 people and one dog began to break up. John Colter, who had been with the expedition since 1803, requested and was given permission to be discharged at that point so he could return up the Yellowstone River to trap beaver. Colter would be the first European-American to see the natural wonders of what is now Yellowstone Park, though no one believed his incredible tales of shooting geysers and boiling mud for several years until additional reports confirmed his fantastic descriptions. The other members of the party who left at this point were the interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and their son Jean Baptiste, aka Pompey, who returned to the Hidatsa village they lived in before Charbonneau signed on in 1805. Clark offered to take Pompey back to St. Louis and raise him and have him educated, but his offer was declined. Years later, Clark did help raise Pompey.
The remainder of the trip to St. Louis was relatively unremarkable. They met several large parties of traders and trappers coming from St. Louis, proof that the country they just explored would be explored and exploited without their remarkable trip. Nevertheless, it was their incredible journey that solidified the United State’s hold on the Louisiana Purchase and gave weight to the American claim to the northwest territory between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
The Corps reached St. Louis September 23, 1806, more than 28 months after leaving it, covering the distance from the Mandan Villages to St. Louis in a little more than a month, five times faster than the upriver voyage in 1804. As they approached St. Louis and once there, countrymen welcomed them with surprise and celebration–most people thought they had perished in the wilderness because there had been no communication from them since they left the Mandan Villages 18 months earlier.
Linda Croonberg has been a great friend of ours since she and Marilyn met in an accounting class at the University of Wyoming in 1988. She currently lives on and operates an 8,000-acre ranch south of Laramie that has been in her family for more than a century. Linda is the epitome of a Wyoming native: independent, proud, land-conscious and hard-working. But she is also fun, daring, adventuresome and maybe just a little nuts That pretty much describes Linda.
She runs about 250 pairs of cattle (mother and calf) scattered across the ranch, fattening on the thin grass that grows on the hills and mountain sides. Cattle are important, but the raison d’être of the ranch right now is hay, and she has about 250 acres of it to mow, rake, bale and store. I arrived at her place Tuesday just in time for the start of haying season, and when you visit Linda during haying season, you pitch in and do what you can.
For years Linda sold hay mainly to horse owners, producing and selling 5,000 “small square” bales. This year, however, marks a change in strategy. With the purchase of several pieces of computer-assisted haying equipment, she has started to bale “large-square” bales.
I arrived at Croonberg Ranch Tuesday afternoon following a five-mile ride down a gravel road to reach her two-mile long driveway, aptly named Croonberg Trail. Getting to her house via the rocky, two-track Croonberg Trail, balancing a large, fully-loaded motorcycle is an adventure I try to take only twice each visit–once coming in and once going out. Linda had already mowed a couple small meadows, but the real production would start the following day with the delivery of her New Holland self-propelled mower that looks like it once performed in one of the Star Wars movies and the final setup of her new Massey Ferguson baler. And the weather gods were smiling on her–only a 10-20% chance of rain for the next couple days.
She gave me a tour of the place to show me the changes that had been made since my last visit in 2016 on a return trip from Alaska. A new ranch house she and some friends built, several new pieces of equipment in addition to the big ones already mentioned and a new dog rounded out the tour. There were significant changes since 2016, but nothing to compare with the changes she’s made since she first started operating the ranch by herself 25 years ago. A little bit at a time and now it’s a first-class operation.
We turned in early; work on a ranch during haying season starts shortly after sunup and often continues for the next 12-14 hours. First thing Wednesday morning, Linda gave me a short tutorial on operating her 1950s vintage Ford tractor with a side-delivery rake. She drove the old but reliable tractor through a thin-hay, dry-land, 12-acre meadow with my butt precariously-perched on the animated steel tractor fender to demonstrate how to operate the ancient two-piece setup. then turned me loose for several hours while she took a bigger tractor with a newer rotary rake to rake windrows in another freshly-mowed meadow. I bounced along on the suspension-challenged little Ford, trying to get my windrows lined up and looking neat, only to watch the Wyoming wind and the occasional hay devil (first cousin to the dust devil) spread my work across the field.
Just when I’d think I’d gotten the hang of the raking thing, I’d look behind me and discover I turned the wrong direction or swung too wide, creating a windrow on the wrong side of where I wanted it to be and then have to make two more passes to put it where I wanted it in the first place. It quickly became clear why my very perceptive friend gave me a small, thin-hay meadow to make my bones on. Still, by noon, I was a full-fledged, Croonberg-certified, Ford-tractor-operating hay raker.
By then, the New Holland self-propelled mower had been delivered from across the state on a big flatbed truck by a friend of Linda’s and driven to the ranch yard. The mower attachment had been too big to take on some roads, so it had been removed and delivered on a separate trailer. After only a little trouble getting the mower unit off the trailer (it took a tractor and a skidster lifting from both sides to lift it so the trailer could be driven out from under it), the two units were reassembled and the monster mower was ready to take on the biggest hay meadows at Croonberg Ranch.
Now it was time to finish assembling the new baler, which was stored with its tractor in her large Morton building. I wanted to help with the final assembly, but, since I know nothing about balers or machinery more complicated than a 1949 Dodge sedan, I was probably just in the way. But Linda’s friend Brad and his helper were understanding and found things for me to do that usually required me getting something from the other side of the building, giving them the opportunity to do their work. Other than a couple of missing bolts and the consequent inability to attach the (apparently not crucial) guide wheels, the assembly was finished by about 4 p.m., time enough for Linda to get her first lesson operating the computer-assisted Massey Ferguson large-square baler (remember, she doesn’t even have Internet at her ranch).
She and Brad climbed aboard the large tractor, and began picking up windrows in the meadow directly in front of the new ranch house. And it picked that row of loose hay right up, slick as whistle. And down the windrow they went. And then the first bale came out of the baler, down the rollers, and broke apart ignominiously as soon as it hit the ground. Brad and Linda got out of the tractor, engaged in a discussion next to the untwined pile of hay, and got back in the tractor. Off they went again. And the next bale came out. And stayed together. But they stopped again and got out with a tape measure which they applied to the bale. More discussion. Back into the cab of the tractor and off they go again. Another bale. Another measurement. Another bale. Another measurement.
Being an uninitiated hayer, I assumed there were problems. Not so. First bales, apparently, don’t always get tied properly. And, I learned later, large-square bales can be made in various lengths. Linda wanted eight-foot bales and the new Massey Ferguson was spitting out 10 foot bales. Not a problem, since the computer mounted in the tractor cab can make many adjustments to the baler, including the length of the bale. Once adjusted, the baler dropped 3 x 3 x 8 bales onto the meadow just like it should. In an hour, the meadow was scattered with glimpses of Linda’s future. Time for a beer and a dinner of lambs ribs and potatoes. Then time to hit the hay, so to speak, and an early bed time since Thursday’s work would start again just after sunrise.
What, Linda must have thought Thursday morning over a cup of hot coffee and cold oatmeal, can I give him to do that (1) won’t seriously impede the haying operation, (2) would be hard to screw up, and (3) isn’t liable to result in serious damage to him or my equipment. After some serious pondering, she ultimately decided I should fuel up all the tractors and add hydraulic fluid to one of her favorites that had a pesky leak. So that was my first job Thursday. And I managed it with no serious problems, narrowly avoiding adding gas to the radiator of the little Ford tractor and spilling some hydraulic fluid on the ground as my aged muscles struggled to lift a full five-gallon can of hydraulic fluid high enough to pour into a small funnel that I couldn’t see. But the work got done and the tractors were ready when needed.
What next? Another, bigger, more hay-rich meadow needed raking to prepare it for the digestive process of the new baler, which feeds loose hay into the front and drops compact bales out its rear end. My orders, from Linda who was about to learn how to use her New Holland mower, were to take the little Ford and the side-delivery and begin raking. Off I went, bouncing through cattle pens and uneven fields until I reached the East Meadow where the hay had been cut and needed raking. I was just the hayer to do it. Calling on my extensive knowledge of raking picked up the day before, I developed a plan, sectioned off a triangular section of the meadow and went to work. I had just finished raking that section and had made two passes around the much bigger portion of the meadow when Linda, fresh from a successful mowing of a large meadow across the river, showed up on her larger tractor equipped with a rotary rake.
“Are you ready for this one?”
“Uh. Yeah. I guess.”
I listened carefully to another five-minute lesson about levers and gears and clutches and up-and-down and other tractory-rakey things and we changed mounts. No sweat, I said to myself. I’ve got this. And I did. As long as I was going in a long straight line. But when I got to the end of a windrow all hay hell would break loose. Hay would fly in a thousand different directions as I tried to turn the damn tractor, raise the whatcha-macallit, semi-clutch it, and start another row. I’d like to say I got better. Maybe I did by about the 20th windrow. But not by much. Later, when I asked Linda for a brutally honest appraisal of my work, she gave me one. And then she placed her hand on my head and forgave my raking sins.
“Have you ever use a skid steer?”
“Time to learn.”
And I got a third five-minute operating tutorial. My next job was to pick up and move the bales scattered around the front meadow and line them up so a truck and trailer could drive up to them and load them quickly. After a couple of chiropractic-quality jerks and nearly tipping the thing over in a small ditch which I didn’t see because it was covered with grass, I got into the meadow and began spearing the 3 x 3 x 8 bales with the bale-picker-upper attachment and lining them up with the precision of a drunken sailor. But eventually they got properly aligned in time for Linda to come by with her truck and trailer and load them with one of her big tractors. Then it was off to the 50 x 100 foot hay shed to unload.
Linda thinks a great deal of her hay shed, which she built. She unloaded and stacked all the bales without my help.
The shed remains mostly empty, but Thursday we moved only a small part of what’s been baled and only about 20% of the meadows have been cut. There’s a lot more left to do and Linda, with help from a young man trying to start his own cattle-raising, hay-baling career, will get it all done, weather-gods permitting, in about five to six more weeks. She’ll have to do it without me, though, since my planned three-day stay was almost over.
We had one more tradition that had to be taken care of. Since 1990, for reasons I don’t remember, Linda and I toast tequila shots when we’re together. Whether it’s during one of my rides and I’m passing through or she’s visiting Marilyn and me or even at my baby girl’s wedding reception, it’s a tradition that must be honored. So last night, we duly celebrated our time together with a tequila toast. And another. And another. And I lost count. It was a good thing she had to get up early again today because it meant a short toasting night.
This morning, we said our goodbyes with plans to visit again soon, and I bounced down Croonberg trail to the gravel road to the asphalt road and closer to home.