It’s been a wild winter. A mild December lulled us into believing we would get a break this year. Silly, silly us. By the end of February–when we often have a thaw, but not this year–our daughter had missed a record sixteen days of school because of cancelled busses. We even saw the weather website post ‘Blizzard Warning,’ which was a new meteorologic category for many of us. In the midst of this, our physical access to the outside world was throttled.
I’m stealing from Peter’s letter/essay that he shared with several family members in February about the experience.
My Personal Groundhog Day
I sometimes tell students the proverb: “There’s no such thing as bad weather—just poorly prepared people.” That perspective has been intercepted and tasered the past two weeks. Even slightly decent weather has been an exception.
When one lives in a town with modern conveniences: public snow removal, the hydroelectric grid, and functioning fuel and food systems, winter is very manageable. But in a rural area like ours—especially off-grid and far from the road—a stormy fortnight can do more than make you glum. It can make you glum, exhausted, anxious–even desperate.
To be forced to worry about all four needs—heat AND food AND hydro AND road access—would be devastating. Even being faced with two of those four factors moderately at-risk is quite concerning. And if on life-support, only one need to grapple with is worse than two or three of moderate concern.
Along the front line of needs, we thankfully don’t have to worry about heat because our heat “only” depends upon processing firewood before the winter ogre emerges. Also ahead of time, we stash food in the freezer and pantry. Throughout much of the year, power production tends to be good as long as the sun shines, the wind blows, and our generator starts–all of which usually occur. But for years, our bugaboo has been our ability to access the road in winter.
No tractor means no snow-clearing and sometimes no access. No access means gradual desperation. Fear of desperation leads to planning and payments. Living rurally on anything other than an acre requires significant money. Tractors are especially expensive if your livelihood does not pay for them. Years ago, a farming neighbour recommended,”Get something with 60 horsepower and four-wheel drive.” Not being farmers, we ended up with an old 40-something horsepower unit with only two-wheel drive. We hoped and prayed it could handle our Goliath of a driveway. For years, it did.
To wrestle the driveway brute if the Massey got sick, we bought an admittedly expensive walk-behind, two-wheeled tractor–like a rototiller on steroids. We reasoned that it could help with Erin’s market gardening, it could help manage our property, and it could step in as an emergency back-up to our four-wheeled tractor. It has started to pay us back numerous times by fighting back snowdrift monsters.
Larger, used four-wheeled tractors are more affordable but often unreliable. During my relationship with my old Massey Ferguson 135 over the past ten years, I fought through waves of appreciation and annoyance, learning and consternation, affection and satisfaction. I gradually achieved a profound respect for my little red and silver workhorse, despite–and even because of–some of her limitations.
After a massive clutch repair a few years ago, the tractor dealer had warned, “She’s living on borrowed time.” Of course she was, but what else is a salesman going to say? And I’d seen older tractors that looked better than many new ones. Sure she was old, but she was simpler to fix, and pleasantly plumper than a modern tractor with the same power. Slow electrical drain? Well, at least I got an upper body workout removing and installing the battery every time I used it. Tendency for the fuel line to slowly leak? At least I could rest easier knowing every time I shut the fuel line off that for SURE it wouldn’t leak. Starting hiccups? That’s old tractors for you, and at least I learned tricks for heating the starter with a plumber’s torch, and remembering to routinely add fuel line antifreeze. Headlights that quickly wore down the battery? At least I learned how to patch a newer LED light on the rear, and was strategizing as to how to replace the front ones similarly. I felt increasing confidence with her the more I learned about just how she ticked.
Until during the midst of Blizzardgeddon. I’d pushed her a little hard through the first wave of storms this season. In the near dark before work one morning, I’d almost finished clearing a big snowfall when I heard her complain. I heard an intermittent, metal-on-metal friction sound. A new sound. After learning someone’s voice for 10 years, new sounds are troubling.
I pulled her off to the side of the driveway, got off, and tried to find the source. I’d made sure in the autumn that the clutch and transmission oil had enough lubricant. Was it the fan rubbing its shroud? No—the fan shaft looked straight and ran true. Then as I kneeled at her side, I saw a small black spot appear halfway up the side of the engine wall. Then a quarter-sized piece of metal shrapnel shot out past me. Inside the resulting hole, a furnace of metal glowed sun-orange. Before I could lunge and turn her off, the Massey had a massive heart-attack and died. Fast and final.
There is no time for tears in war. I had my job to go to and frantic tractor research to perform. There was a ton of tiring two-wheeled tractor snow-blowing and my only Personal Day off work to be taken for extensive tractor hunting at gunpoint. Even my Personal Day was seriously compromised by the white ogre: of three dealership visits I planned, with whiteout driving conditions I was fortunate to even make it to one.
A few realizations became distinct in the haze of negotiating pathways between blizzards. There were few, if any, suitable used tractors of the right size and price available. Was it worth it to buy new? We’d be plunking down more money on a single item than we ever had.
- a dealer-supported warranty resulting in huge peace-of-mind
- a new transmission style (“HST”) that other family members could learn on much more easily. It would help them get access to the road if I was not home
- release from the quirks of the old Massey and upgrades like a functioning light system to increase safety and usage
- potentially—for more money—a bucket loader to help with chores and projects
After a week of research, phone calls with salespeople and insurance people, driving my friend Paul’s tractor, we pulled the trigger. A week-and-a-half after the first of many wistful trips past the soulless shell of the Massey, a shiny, new vehicle trundled down our lane. Near a hamlet that, in decades past, boasted a loyal following of Orangemen, I became a member of the loyal order of the orange Kubota tractor clan.
Our new L 3901 is an economy-line tractor that has a little less horsepower (39 h.p.) than the Massey but has a strong diesel engine, modern features like an anti-rollover bar [Erin applauds enthusiastically] and Kubota’s record for reliability.
It starts like a dream, drives intuitively with its hydrostatic transmission, and has a surprising amount of power. The seat alone is a quantum leap over the old one. One’s butt almost cracks a smile after perching on it! Further north of the tailbone, with more practice I’ll shave 20-70% off snow-clearing time and ease my neck and back.
And the bucket loader! I’d heard people swear they’d only begrudgingly live life without a loader, but it seemed overstated. After only one day, I’m a believer.
I can’t thank God and family benefactors enough. My spirit exhaled an embattled sigh of relief this morning. For two weeks, Cricket has suffered through short and blustery walks with me. With no new snow (!) and no tractor issues to work through, finally this morning I strapped on skis at home for the first time this winter.
With a firm base of snow lightly dusted by a perfect inch of overnight fluff, we zoomed north along the snowmobile trail and into the neighbouring Bruce Trail Conservancy field. Somewhere amidst the frozen swamp, I received a profound moment of peace. I was enjoying the first sustained waking moments of relaxation and regeneration—if not healing—in more than two weeks.
I was more than making peace with winter, I was communing with it. The forecast would’ve remained blustery without the juiced-up, orange, anti-snow tonic in my back pocket! It was a blessing to remember that winter can be a blessing if one is blessed.
(This post is not sponsored by Kubota…but if they’d like to remove a few tractor payments for us, we’re all in! -Erin)