Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Heather Smith Thomas — Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Don’t Let Your Cow Dogs Drive at Night!

Baxter and Tuffy at work, following a rider (our granddaughter)
as we head out to the range to find and gather cattle.

[Previous blogs have told of various adventures with our animals, starting at the beginning of my experiences with horses and cattle and working forward from there. This story will jump to a more recent occurrence.]

It was a dark and stormy night (June 29, 2010). Lightning flashed, and thunder crashed. The wind was blowing at gale force, pounding rain against the buildings. Two panicky cow dogs, Baxter and Tuffy, were seeking shelter, to get away from the rain and deafening thunder. Our son and his family have several good cow dogs. These two are brave and bold when working cattle — never hesitating to take on the most formidable challenges. But they are total wimps about thunder, cowering in the darkest corner they can find.

Our son Michael and his family live a couple of miles up the creek from our place, and their house sits on a hill above the county road. Their vehicles, trailers, tractors, and so on are parked around the house, and their lane down to the road is steep, with a couple of switchbacks. On this particular night Tuff and Baxter climbed into one of those vehicles — a Ford Explorer. The dogs go everywhere with Michael and Carolyn and their kids, to irrigate, feed, or take care of cattle on various leased ranches, and are accustomed to traveling in all the vehicles.

To get out of the storm that night, they crawled into the Explorer easily, since one of the windows didn’t roll all the way up. They probably cowered down under the dashboard to hide from the lightning and thunder and possibly lay on the clutch or knocked the gearshift lever and put the vehicle out of gear.

Whatever happened, the vehicle was able to roll, and the strong wind got it moving. The Explorer left the parking area and rolled straight down the hill (but not on the driveway), where it hit some large rocks and dislodged them; the vehicle turned sideways, taking the rocks with it. The Explorer rolled over several times on the rest of its way down the hill (which got steeper), through a fence (breaking the wires and taking out several posts), and over a 15-foot cliff/bank to the county road below — where it landed on its top. The impact completely caved in the top and smashed the vehicle. The dogs survived their wild excursion with mere bumps and bruises, since they were small enough to be protected by the seats when the top mashed down.

This probably happened in the wee hours of the morning (on June 30) when the wind was blowing hardest, so the dogs were in the wrecked car for a while. There’s not much traffic on our creek road, especially at night, since there are only eight houses along this 5-mile stretch of road, so no one discovered the wreck until daylight.

I was out feeding my horses early that morning when a dozen search-and-rescue vehicles came roaring up the road past our place. I immediately worried that something bad had happened to one of our neighbors or to our son and his family — an accident, fire, or what?? I wasn’t in suspense very long, however, because Michael and Carolyn drove down to our place as the last of the search-and-rescue vehicles went up. They came to borrow our backhoe — which would be able to pick up the smashed Explorer and haul it out of the road. It had crashed down in a narrow spot and was blocking the road; they were barely able to drive past it, squeezing by it along the ditch next to the hill.

One of their neighbors had noticed the smashed car in the road when he got up that morning and immediately thought our grandson Nick had crashed and possibly injured or killed himself. The neighbor called 911 — and that was why the search-and-rescue crews were roaring up our creek, bringing all their equipment and Jaws of Life apparatus for getting trapped people out of wrecked cars. When they got there, all they could find were the dogs inside the Explorer, and the dogs wouldn’t come out. They were too timid, not trusting strangers.

Meanwhile, the neighbor called our son Michael, who was wondering why all the traffic was coming up the creek road at first light of day. He and Carolyn knew that Nick couldn’t have been involved in the accident because Nick was in Montana at a summer track camp. They didn’t think it could be any of their vehicles, until they looked out in the parking area and realized the Explorer was missing. So they drove down to the main road, to the scene of the accident, and coaxed the guilty drivers, Baxter and Tuffy, out of the crunched Explorer.

There was shattered glass all over the road, and the wrecked vehicle was full of horseshoe nails. Michael had just bought some horseshoes and a big box of horseshoe nails, which had tumbled around and come open. Those poor dogs must have been blasted by a shower of hundreds of sharp, flying missiles and hit by thudding horseshoes as the vehicle rolled over and over. Michael and Carolyn spent a while gathering up the horseshoes and all the nails they could find. Then they hooked onto the Explorer, picked it up with the backhoe, and carried it off the road.

The wrecked Explorer, after our son picked it up off the country road with our backhoe and carried it out of the roadway. The top was smashed flatter than this; it popped back up a little when it was picked up. In the background of one view you can see part of the driveway up the hill to their house. The vehicle went careening down off that hill beyond that driveway, where the hill was even steeper, down to the main road.
The dogs were a little stiff and sore for a few days but didn’t have any serious injuries. They don’t seem to have any regrets about their wild driving adventure, and they still hang out in the wrecked Explorer. A few weeks ago when we were driving a herd of cattle up the road in a thunderstorm, the dogs played hooky when we went past their favorite vehicle and climbed into the old wreck for shelter from the storm — and stayed there until the storm was over.

This was a bad-luck summer for vehicles. Less than a week after the dog-driving wreck, Carolyn called us in a panic and asked my husband Lynn to bring his tractor and a log chain (Michael was on one of their other places, baling hay, and wasn’t home to help with this current disaster). Our grandson Nick had lost his pickup in the neighbor’s pond.

He’d started off to track practice and parked the pickup in the driveway to shut the gate (since two of their old horses were grazing the several acres around their house on the hill and he couldn’t leave the gate open), but the parking brake failed. While he was shutting the gate, the pickup rolled down the driveway across the county road (about 100 feet from where the Explorer crashed), through the fence, and into the neighbor’s pond, where it was quickly sinking out of sight.

Nick had to borrow Michael and Carolyn’s car to drive to town for track practice. Lynn took our tractor to the pond, where he and Carolyn were able to hook onto the back bumper of the pickup (which was not yet fully under water) and pulled it out. The whole front end was under water, and the dunking ruined the motor. The current plan is eventually to put the motor from the wrecked Explorer into Nick’s pickup.

Meanwhile, we gave Nick our 35-year-old Chrysler to drive to track practice. It hadn’t been driven for several years and needed a new battery and an oil change, but it was doing just fine until the transmission ran out of fluid (we forgot to check it)! So it had to have the transmission rebuilt, but it’s running again now. If bad luck runs in threes, maybe we’re done with vehicle problems and we’ll be okay for a while. But we are not going to let Tuffy and Baxter drive again!

The two guilty drivers, resting on Michael's flatbed truck a few days after their wild ride and car crash.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.

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