Working Outside of My Comfort Zone

By Cam Mather

Living off the grid for 13 years, I’ve spent a lot of my time outside of my comfort zone. From working with concrete on solar trackers or wind turbine anchor holes, to choosing and installing batteries or putting up a wind turbine, I have nothing in my background that prepared me for many of the tasks that I’ve accomplished. I just had to learn it all by the seat of my pants.

Whenever I am in the midst of a task that I don’t feel overly confident about, I find myself wondering, “How did I get here?” Most recently I had that feeling while I was towing a trailer behind my truck. Now I’m used to towing a trailer, since every couple of weeks I get a load of horse manure from my neighbor. It’s not the most elegant trailer in the world, but it gets the job done. During the snowy winter months I seem to spend as much time getting the truck unstuck from the snow as I do unloading the manure.

Last week I borrowed my neighbor Ken’s big red trailer to haul some rotten round bales of hay. There are lots of beef farmers in my area and they often end up with hay bales that got too wet or bales that got moldy and they are willing to sell them to me pretty cheaply. The bales aren’t pretty, but I’m only using them as a soil supplement, so it doesn’t matter. Actually my main use for them is to expand my gardens. Once I identify where I want to expand my garden the following year, I unroll a thick layer of hay, which kills anything growing there. I love this because it leaves all the nutrients and topsoil intact, unlike plowing where you turn the top 6 or more inches of soil over. Oh, and since I don’t own a tractor or a plow, it’s not an option anyway.

I got my latest bunch of round bales from a farmer south of here near a village called Enterprise. To get there I had to drive down some real back roads, starting with one called “The Carroll Road”. The roads are scenic and beautiful and gravel and narrow. They actually get much wider in the winter when the plow pushes the snow and everything else well back. But right now, with grass and weeds aggressively encroaching on the road, it is pretty much a one-lane road. I drive slowly so this isn’t a problem, but the challenge comes with the trailer, especially once it’s loaded with round bales. I put two bales across the bottom of the trailer so I can stack one on top, so the bales end up sticking out a bit past the already wide rear bumpers.

Driving down the road is a constant game of looking as far down the road as possible, so that if I do spot another car I can try and find a flat spot to get as far off to the side as I can. I love country roads like this because I rarely encounter another vehicle, but when I do, it can be pretty stressful. The only consolation is that these roads are constantly used by tractors pulling large trailers with round bales, so most drivers around here are accustomed to dealing with slow-moving farm vehicles.

The trips back and forth to pick up these round bales were extra stressful because I had a choice of two possible routes to use. One road generally remains dry but is very narrow and has a 90-degree turn in it that I dread having to negotiate with a trailer loaded with hay. The other road is straighter, but it is lower and runs through some swampy land. I have driven this road in the spring when it’s been covered in water and unlike the cool guys you see in movies plowing through these sorts of situations, I generally find it pretty stressful. I don’t think you should ever just assume that a road is stable under a lot of water. So the other night I made the decision to take the lower, straighter road. Just past the turn off for the other option, I came across a “Wash Out” sign. Now I was pretty sure that the sign had been put there in the spring when the road was underwater. And I knew that since it was now the middle of August and we’d had a brutal drought with no rain for 30 days that the road was going to be dry, but there was still something about driving past the sign. There was no turning back. It was a mile before I’d get to the flooded section and the entire road is a swamp. There are no driveways to turn around in, and backing up a trailer like that for a mile wasn’t going to be very practical. I was all in and there was just that little nagging doubt that maybe some beaver had damned up a stream and I was going to be driving through a pond.

So there I was, committed to drive through an area flagged as a “Wash Out”. I’d love to get one of those little remote blood pressure monitors like the astronauts wear so I could watch it when I’m in these situations. It’s an irrational fear, but it’s stressful nonetheless.

I was quite relieved to see the road was in fact dry, which left just one more little challenge. Crossing a railroad track. I know what you’re saying… “Come on Cam, how hard can it be to cross a railroad track? People do it everyday!” Well, yes they do. But this is a crossing with no gate, and no lights. It’s that much of a back road so the railroad just doesn’t bother.  Plus you cross it at about a 45° angle and the visibility down the track is poor. And the track has trains on it regularly. So I stopped, got out of the truck, looked way down the track, listened for whistles, then sprinted back to the truck and got over it as fast as I could.

This is stressful enough with an empty trailer, but once it’s loaded, it’s a whole different ballgame. These are heavy, heavy round bales. And the track is raised above the roadbed, and the truck has a manual transmission. So I have to stop, walk up and check the track, then sprint back, and try to get the truck up to a decent enough speed to get up the hill and change from first to second gear and get over the tracks before some big honking’ 100-car train comes barreling’ down on me. And since I don’t tow this trailer very often, I’m ultra paranoid that of course the whole thing is going to break down just when am I a perfectly centered in the crossing, leaving me to just wait until the train plows through the whole shebang.

After writing this it sounds to me like I need a therapist. I guess I can lean towards looking at the “downside” of things, but I consider it more like being a realist. My truck has 250,000 kms on it. The trailer has a load of heavy hay. We all know that stuff breaks. I just believe in having a “Plan B” in life. And a “Plan C” and “D” as well.

Ultimately there is nothing more rewarding than pulling into the driveway!

So why do I bother you ask? That’s a good question. I think that the round bales system of garden expansion (which I invented) is absolutely brilliant, if I do say so myself. I’m taking a product that is basically waste for the farmer, (I usually pay about $5 each for them) and I take all that stored solar energy and photosynthetically created biomass and use it not only to make my gardens bigger, but also to break down and add organic matter to my sandy soil. This organic matter has wonderful trace nutrients and elements my soil needs, and as it breaks down it and becomes very small it absorbs moisture during rains and watering, to release slowly back to the roots of the plants around it as they need it. I really think it’s speeding up the building up of my soil.

So for all these reasons I’m going to keep taking these little trips down the Carroll Road to retrieve round bales. I do not face the stress of a daily commute from the suburbs. I do not have to crowd onto a subway car at the end of my workday. I do not have to submit to cavity searches at airports. But I do voluntarily take a big wide trailer fully loaded with hay down one-lane roads through some of the prettiest country I have ever seen. It may be illogical and stressful but it’s a dream come true for a suburban boy like me and I’ll be doing it again soon and I can hardly wait!

8 Responses to “Working Outside of My Comfort Zone”

  • Cathy:

    I’ve hauled hay before and I can picture the top heavy hay swaying on the trailer as you rock over the RR tracks. It would acctually be a thrilling site to see a train hit bales sitting on the track. (Not a truck or trailer.) Maybe next time, pay the farmer to deliver the hay or take a valium first before to leave home. Happy bales to you!

  • Will:

    Great story Cam. Sounds like you might need to take a bracing thermos of hot tea with you for those nervy bits … nothing like it really.

  • Susan C.:

    I use straw (also because of the grass seed thing)and start with a layer of cardboard first. I do get some wheat growing but I pick it and dry it for floral arrangements so it’s a side benefit. I have also never heard Mother Earth News referred to as M.E.N but I think most people know what your talking about when you say Mother.

  • Lawrence Walker:

    I live in a small village in west-central Manitoba. I have a large double lot. When I moved here from T.O. 10 years ago (I grew up in the region) I sited a garden in a sheltered corner and had it plowed up. I’m planning to move my garden to a sunnier spot. Your method of clearing garden area intrigues me. There are also many beef ranches in the area.
    Are there any sites detailing this method of clearing. The spot where I want to place the new garden is now lawn. The hay versus straw question of the previous post is also interesting.

    ciao, Lawrence

  • Hello to Maija, you’ve come to a great place to learn from Cam’s experience. Yes, and please tell us what M.E.N. is? I know Cam’s articles are widely published, but have not heard of that publication.

    Cheers,
    gerrit

  • Debbie:

    M.E.N = Mother Earth News 🙂

  • Hi Maija, I’m in Inverary.

    Pardon my ignorance, but what is M.E.N. and should I be reading it too?

    Peter

  • Maija:

    Hello!

    I’m a new follower of your blog. I was excited ~ while reading an article of yours on M.E.N. ~ to see you that live so close… I’m in Napanee!

    I began using the ‘no dig’ garden method a couple of years ago. I use straw though. I thought you had to use straw due to the fact that hay is full of seed. How do you find it?

    Peace, Maija

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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