More Dogs on Main Street
May 22, 2009
It’s been a frantic season on the ranch this year. This winter was tough on the fences, and there is always a backlog of general maintenance. My farm hand, Myrle, retired this year at the delicate age of 77. He’s still tougher than most office workers half his age, but he said he just can’t do it any more.
Trying to figure out how to operate without him is proving difficult. He’s worked here full time for longer than I can remember, and was seasonal for years before that. His father herded sheep for the family we bought the ranch from, and he spent his summers with his father in the sheep camp, and worked on the hay crew. The other day, he told me he rode the draft horse that hoisted the hay into the barn when he was 10. So even adjusting for a stint in the Korean War and a couple of years in California, I’d guess he’s worked here for nearly 60 years, one way or another.
Needless to say, he knows the place. His main job has been flood-irrigating the hay farm. The main canal splits into five streams feeding miles of ditches. He chases those around the fields, plugging a ditch with a plastic dam so it will spill out on to the fields. Some ditches will spill three holes in the ditch bank, others five holes at a time. He knows every rock, every patch of clay soil that will look like it’s watered but really needs more time to soak in. He knows that if you water one field, another one a couple of hundred feet away will be too wet to mow a week later. It’s all in his head, and nobody knows it better. He can make water flow uphill.
I had some friends out for dinner and was moaning about the problem of trying to replace somebody who is absolutely irreplaceable. My friends aren’t farmers and didn’t understand irrigation. For them, irrigation is the little clock in the corner of the garage that turns the sprinklers on. So we had a little discussion about flood irrigation.
You are out in the field that is just blindingly green, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The red-tail hawks know that, when you spill the ditch, the gophers run for higher ground, so the hawks are swooping in around you at close range. You get to know them individually.
There is something about spilling water onto the soil that harkens back to the first humans to develop agriculture, and the joy of playing in the water. In the heat of July, you can almost hear the plants soaking it in. The evaporation causes its own air currents. There are a couple of fox dens on some of the higher ground, and the kits are playing while their mother is grabbing gophers before the hawks get them. It’s absolutely serene.
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For about a day. By the end of a week, the focus tends to be on the fact that the ditch bottoms are slick, greasy clay. You get covered with slimy silt and inevitably slip and get soaked in ice-cold water. Your rubber boots get smelly and gross. It’s hot, boring, and hard. Even my dog gives up and goes home after a few hours.
One of my friends suggested that I was approaching it wrong. It’s a terrible job, but could be a great vacation. Her idea was to sell that first magical day with the wonders of nature as a kind of therapy session. People would pay for that experience for the first day, and maybe the second. Then get them out of here before the novelty wears off and the cussing begins.
That would require some changes, but if the "guests" each had one ditch to work, they wouldn’t need to understand how to close up the reservoirs that fill overnight, or Myrle’s perfect sequence of raising the water table here so the water would actually flow over there. They could just mind their ditch, move their dams down the line, and watch the clouds blow by. My friends thought there would be people lined up to pay good money for that, especially among people who don’t know which end of a shovel to hold.
There could be a gift shop that sold rubber boots, shovels, souvenir plastic dams, and croissants. Other big items, which lend authenticity to the whole program, would be pre-aged cowboy hats or ball caps with the names of tractor-parts houses on them, and chewing tobacco. Myrle always implied that the reason I couldn’t irrigate up to his standard was that I didn’t chew.
The plan worked well for Tom Sawyer getting the fence painted. It just might work for irrigation. We have available dates through August.
Tom Clyde served as Park City attorney in the 1980s and is the author of "More Dogs On Main Street." He has been a columnist at The Park Record for more than 20 years.