Mending fences and (mostly) dodging lightning
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May 12, 2017
I just finished up a week of mending fences, in the literal sense. This winter was brutal on the fences around the ranch. Trees blew over. Moose and elk walk through the fences like they aren't even there, snow plows, and just the weight of all that snow pushing on them — the fences were a mess.
I had a crew of a couple of my sister's grandsons and some of their friends. The employment specification is pretty simple. They have to be a lot younger than me. It's hard work.
As we moved around from one field to another, the differences in fencing techniques were obvious. I don't know who built most of the fences originally. I had a hand in some, my uncle and cousins in others, but the majority of them were put in maybe 80 years ago. Somebody hand dug post holes every 16 feet along both sides of the highway when it was upgraded from a wagon road in the 1930s. The old cedar posts are starting to fail, but you've got to respect somebody who took that job on.
Most of the land is river cobble rock, which is just miserable stuff to drive a post in. There are patches of ledge-rock where dynamite would be more useful than a shovel. And then there is one stretch where the ground is so soft that the fence sinks out of sight. I'd pulled it up to normal height with the loader on the tractor, and when my nephew released the chain, the fence slowly sank back into the ground. We ended up pushing new wood posts in there with the tractor bucket.
The most interesting part of the week was getting struck by lightning. That kind of stands out.
The barbed wire is connected to the steel posts with a little clip. It's a pre-bent piece of wire that hooks over the barbed wire, wraps around the post and can be tightened with a quick bend of a loop on the other end. There is a clear divergence of opinion on how aggressively the clip needs to be bent. Some places, whoever did the fencing bent the clips just until they would hold. Other places, somebody twisted the bejeezus out of the clips, bending the loop until it wrapped around the barbed wire a couple of times. It makes repairing the fence very difficult because you can't easily take the wire off the post. As you work a long a mile section of fence, you can tell who patched it. The technique shows a difference between the emergency repairs on the fly and deliberate patches, and when it was getting close to quitting time or threatening rain.
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If there is a textbook on barbed wire fencing (and there probably is somewhere from the 1870s when it first came into use), I've never seen it. It's one of those arts that get handed down from one generation to another. The fencing on a neighboring ranch could be entirely different. Our former farm hand, Myrle, had a trick for taking up slack in the fence that involved twisting the wire with a claw hammer. I've never been able to duplicate it, but came across several his hammer-knots in the fences.
There's a bit of a contest to see who can come up with the best artifact of the year. Sometimes it's roadside trash, or a scrap of old machinery. One year there was a museum quality moose skeleton in the deep woods. For several years, the most unusual artifact was a hubcap from a Kaiser Manhattan that turned up a half mile from the nearest road, 50 years after the last one rolled off the assembly line. This year, the trophy was a perfectly intact coffee mug from a restaurant named "Phileppe" in Los Angeles. It's been the "home of the French Dip since 1908." That mug was a long way from home, with a story to tell.
The most interesting part of the week was getting struck by lightning. That kind of stands out. We were installing an end-bumper for the irrigation system. Picture a small-scale football goal post. It was as pleasant a spring day as you could get, aside from hand mixing a yard of concrete. We were almost done when the weather turned. Neither of us saw the flash, but the shock and the thunder were simultaneous. Fortunately, it wasn't the kind of lightning strike that turns you to smoldering jerky. It was one of those cartoon lightning strikes where your whole body is outlined with a zigzag arc of electricity for what seemed like a very long time. It was enough of a jolt that both of us nearly fell over. My hands tingled for an hour or so after. If it conveyed any super powers, I haven't discovered them yet. My nephew suddenly has a French accent.
Once you've been struck by lightning, the rest of the day seems pretty mundane.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.