Friday, February 26, 2010

The week of February 22 proved to have its own obstacles. The predicted rain came, and it did help wash out some of the ice on my road but it had little effect on the farm road. When I came in on Monday night, the farm road, particularly a half mile stretch that gets little sun, was solid ice. It is not very steep but my truck almost slid off about a half dozen times.
Coming out on Tuesday was even worse, and when I reached the second gate, my track slipped off and tapped the gate post, denting a twelve inch section of the fender and scraping off the paint in several spots. I had spent the whole winter avoiding damage to the truck and now I had messed it up. Fortunately, I usually run my truck into the ground and then trade it in so there wouldn’t be any immediate costs to my carelessness. But the farm road was a genuine concern.
On Wednesday after getting an okay from Mike, I drove my tractor down to the bad stretch and started scraping some of the ice and snow off to the side. I used the bucket to clear about ten loads of snow and ice away from the area around the second gate and that made it much easier to get through safely. I didn’t do much for the rest of the road since my tractor is just too small to scrape away significant snow. On my way out the road was much better and when I returned that night, I had no problems.
Thursday morning was fine getting out, and to my surprise, when I returned home I found that Mike had taken the larger tractor and the big scraping blade through the whole section and now I had a much easier ride in. Winter is by no means over—there is a possibility of snow on Tuesday and Wednesday—but having a few days of safe and easy access is a positive joy.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I did a number of things in the house, waiting for the glorious sun to soften the ice, and a little after twelve, started the tractor. I was dressed warmly, but the sunlight made everything easier. I scraped my way to the hay barn and then back, then repeated the process. The ice was still hard but on my third pass, I could see more dirt, a precious sight indeed. I knew tomorrow was going to be sunnier and even warmer so I was happier than I had been in a couple of months. When I finished, I knew I could get back up that evening, so when I drove out it wasn’t with a sense of worry about returning, but with a confidence I had lacked since mid-December.
Saturday was a delightful day, and I called Mike and found out he was coming over at three to move the hundred gallon tank. I did a couple of passes up to the hay barn and when Mike arrived, it didn’t take us long to get the tank down and hooked up. After Mike left, I got the refrigerator going in a couple of minutes and learned a trick to get the pilot to stay on in the heater. Now I had a safe road and enough gas for at least a month. I couldn’t want anything else.
On Sunday, I decided to stay off the tractor. I read some and graded papers, practiced my sax and washed my winter jacket, which had begun to look like a hobo’s hand-me-down. I put all the stuff I had taken out of my truck to deliver the hundred pound tank back in, and I was elated, particularly since it was supposed to rain on Monday and that would help clear more snow and ice.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

On Wednesday, I was able to set up an appointment with Jerry to come out on Thursday morning and work on the heater. My stay at the Microtel was productive (practicing my sax, riding the bike in the exercise room, yoga at night, eating healthy things I kept in the refrigerator) but I was very glad to be visiting the hollow. The big rut had melted a little and after I shoveled some chunks of ice and snow in, it was easy to traverse. The farm road was a little slippery at a couple of points, and my road was icy near the top, but I got Jerry in. The heat was still working (and there was almost no smell) and the tank was still about half full so I wasn’t using much gas. Jerry changed the regulator and I got the refrigerator working in a few minutes while he relit the heater. It wasn’t even ten so I decided to check out of the Microtel and come home that night.
It was about eight thirty when I got to the Sisson gate and there was no problem until the hill going down from the hay barn. The top half was solid ice and I crept down in first gear, very anxious that the truck would take off down the hill. It didn’t but I knew my road was going to be tricky. I slipped a little on the first half so I got some speed up before I tried for the top. Even with the speed, the truck started slipping and I just managed to reach the top. I was really scared and I wondered how I would get down tomorrow. I had wanted to use the tractor but I wasn’t sure how safe that would be. I called Mike and he thought I would be fine after it warmed up (it was predicted to be over forty) but cautioned me to be very careful.
When I got in the house, there was a new problem. The heat was on and the temperature was seventy eight. The thermostat wasn’t working so I turned the whole unit off and turned on the Olympics. By eleven it had cooled down so I started it back up—having to fiddle with the pilot for ten minutes—and left it on until I went to bed. I wondered if I could use the other thermostat I had, but I was tired and decided to wait to talk to Raymond in the morning.
A little after eight I called Raymond and he phoned me back. He didn’t think the thermostat was broken and after talking to Jerry told me that Jerry had probably left the switch on in the back of the heater. What relief that proved, and everything was working fine. Now I had to wait for the sun to warm things up and take the tractor out.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

When I got back home I was in for an unpleasant surprise. The smell was still there, and that made me uncomfortable. I wondered if I had a bad tank of gas—which does happen—but for whatever reason, the odor remained although perhaps a little fainter. It was much less in the bedroom but on Saturday morning, I knew I wasn’t going to keep breathing air like that. I decided to drive down to the pasture and call Valley Propane. I left a message for Raymond and then called Mike to see if he could come and help me drag the hundred pound tank from the cabin (this would let me see if the new tank was bad), and he said he could come over in a few hours. I tried to turn around, but the snow was too deep and slippery, so I drove up to the hay barn where Mike’s tractor had flattened the snow. However, as I started up the hill, my truck slid off to the side and I barely was able to get back on the plowed road. That had never happened before and it meant that the road was getting slicker. I backed up, built up some speed and bouncing from side to side made it to the top. I stopped there just to steady myself for a minute, but when I started up again, my truck again began to slide off the road. Dropping into the ravine in my hollow, thirty feet at most, was scary but sliding off at the hay barn would mean a plunge of at least fifty feet into the North Fork of the Roanoke River. I stopped again to calm myself and then cautiously backed up until I was on the road again. Moving forward very slowly kept me on the road but now I had to turn around. The snow was crisscrossed with Mike’s tractor tire marks but it still looked troubling. I gunned the truck and by spinning it around I was able to complete my turn and get back on the road. This was too much. I was fearful to go back down the hay barn hill but I really had no choice. Fortunately, my truck handled that well, but once I got back on level ground, I realized I had to get out of the hollow for now. There were a half dozen rutted areas in the first pasture filled with water and large chunks of ice and the biggest one, near the main gate was getting to a point where I wasn’t sure I could get through it many more times without damaging my truck and perhaps getting stuck. Then there was the smell in the house. To add to that more snow was expected on Monday and Tuesday. I called Mike and told him not to come up, that I was leaving for the next five days at least. He was still willing to come but I didn’t want to fight the snow and ice any longer.
Driving back to the house proved uneventful and in an hour I had everything packed for an extended stay at the Microtel, at least five days. I just wanted to be in a safe place and not worry about getting home for a while. I had had to deal with an icy road since December 19th. This was by far the worst winter I had ever had in the hollow, the worst since I had come to Radford in 1986.
By driving very carefully I made it to the Sisson gate and my entire body relaxed. Just then Raymond called and he said that since my main tank had fifteen percent in it, he thought the smell was from the vent free heater and that it needed to be cleaned or fixed. When I had had the heater serviced in the fall, the repairman had told me that when he came the next fall he wanted to change the pilot assembly, so Raymond’s idea made sense. I told him I would get back to him after the snow ended and see if I could get up there myself with one of his men or get Mike to bring him up. For now, though, I was headed for the Microtel and I didn’t have to go back for at least a week.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

When I called Raymond at eleven thirty, he told me that the service man would meet me at the gate at one. Jerry was there a little early and in a few minutes we were loaded and on our way up to the house. The worst spot on the road right now is a deeply rutted section that you literally drop into. Once we passed that, we had little trouble and the work I had done earlier with the tractor helped, though I could see that I needed to clear the area near my gate some more.
Jerry was able to use the regulator and some copper tubing from the hundred gallon tank to set the new tank right next to the house instead of by the main underground tank. That would make swapping the new tank out with a fresh one much easier. It was when we went inside to relight the vent free heater that I realized I had a big problem. I recalled with horror how hard it had been to restart the propane refrigerator the last time it was defrosted, and I was instantly alarmed. While Jerry was working on the vent free, I pulled out the refrigerator manual and got down to try to restart the pilot. Fortunately, I had written some good directions and after setting the controls at the right spots and pressing the pilot down, I saw the red line move into the green in a few seconds. I had spent several hours last time so this amazed me, and I even had Jerry help me move the refrigerator out so I could make sure the pilot was on, which it was. In all likelihood, I would have to do this several more times since I can’t imagine that the regular propane truck would be able to get up to the house until mid March.
I drove Jerry back to his truck and when I got back to the house, I decided to get back on the tractor and do some more work by the gate. The snow there, even with my earlier efforts, was still fairly deep and it took me over an hour of working with the bucket to clear the road to my satisfaction.

Friday, February 12, 2010

After a long day on Tuesday, January 9, I was feeling run down and I decided to stay at the Microtel. That restful and I felt much better in the morning. I spent the next night in the hollow and I returned Thursday night to find a new problem. When the vent-free heater went on, I could smell something and immediately I knew what the problem was. The tank was down below ten percent and what was now burning was a mixture of propane and methane which produces a disagreeable smell. The tank gauge in the morning had shown fifteen percent, but either that was wrong or there was more methane in the tank. I went outside and phoned the emergency number at Valley Propane and when the representative returned my call, he told me that though disagreeable, the smell was not harmful. I was a bit skeptical of that, but he told me that the company would get me something tomorrow, at worst a hundred pound tank (twenty four gallons) which should get me through a week. I asked about running a line from the hundred gallon tank at my cabin, but he said the distance, over a nintey feet, was too long. I did have a hundred pound tank up there also, but I didn’t know how much was in it since it hadn’t been used since the house was built. That tank could prove very helpful. I thanked him and went back to work, doing some practicing for tomorrow’s performance.
I had had a little trouble with drifting snow coming in the night before, so when I awoke at six fifty, I quickly got dressed up in all my tractor clothing—it was sixteen degrees outside--and started working on the road. My part was fine but there was a lot of snow out in the first pasture so I cleared some of that and then headed for the hay barn. I remembered the time I started slipping down that stretch and decided to head into the pasture and go around the hay barn. I thought I was far enough in to avoid a small ditch but as I dipped slightly into the declivity, the tractor wheels started spinning and I was stuck. Fortunately, I was able to use the bucket to help me get out, and I took a longer route to the top. I had no problem going down the hay barn hill and back up and it was easy to get back down the other side. I called Valley Propane and Raymond told me that they weren’t going to be able to get a truck all the way up to my house but one of the workers would meet me at the Seneca Hollow gate with the hundred pound tank. There he would help me transfer it to my truck and then help me set it up in the hollow. Raymond wasn’t sure when the truck could get there but said to call at eleven thirty. That was fine with me because my hands were numb and I just wanted to get back to the house and warm up.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The stay at the Microtel was pleasant and with O’Charley’s restaurant open throughout the storm, I had a decent place to eat. I took a number of walks from the motel and the one on Friday night, with almost no traffic and on the recently plowed road, was very peaceful. I felt safe since I was close the motel, and the flat road was comfortable. If I had stayed in the hollow I would have had trouble walking, and if I slipped and fell out there while trying to clear a path, who knows what the consequences could have been.
Mike was able to get the entire road done on Saturday afternoon, but since it was past checkout time, I stayed in Christiansburg, even driving to Rob Solomon’s house to watch the Virginia Tech game.
Driving home Sunday early afternoon offered no problems and being home felt terrific. The sun was out and my road was clear. Who could want more than that? I got on my tractor to clear a little more by the house, and settled back in for the Super Bowl, which turned out to be an exciting game, especially the New Orleans onside kick to start the second half.
On Monday morning the weather forecast brought winter back into focus. It was possible that the new snow would start at four in the morning, and that meant I might be snowed in if I went home. I decided to take my toiletries and some extra clothes and that way I could stay in town if things looked threatening. I was still uncertain of what to do after I finished teaching at five but after confirming with Justin Craig that we would be playing Friday night and talking to the Blacksburg National Weather Service forecaster, who told me the snow shouldn’t start until seven, I decided to drive home and just get up early. This way I could get my saxophone—which I should have brought with me—and spend the night at home, a pleasing prospect. The drive was tolerable, with the farm road in good shape and my road not at all slippery.
When I went to bed I set the alarm for six and figured that I could get out just as the snow was beginning. Somewhat restless I awoke at three, and thankfully there was no snow. I went back to sleep and woke again at five and the news was not so good. A heavy snow was falling, with an inch already on the ground. The Weather Service forecaster had failed me (although the original prediction was correct) and after calling the university and finding out that it wasn’t closed, I knew I had to get out of the hollow just in case things got very bad. Fortunately the drive to Christiansburg was uneventful, and six twenty found me in the Starbucks sipping a well deserved coffee. An automated call from Radford told me that the university would be opening at 9:30 so my plan was working. It would be an easy ride to Radford, and I would be there for all my classes.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I had had enough of winter already but the forecast was for more snow on Monday night, February 1st, or Tuesday morning. When I got back home after teaching my evening class, I decided to park at my gate so I wouldn’t have to worry about the road. One winter when I was living in my cabin, I had to walk up the very icy road every night for three long weeks. Tonight’s walk wasn’t hard but I used my hiking stick and moved slowly.
When I awoke the snow was just beginning, and I thought I had better get out of the hollow quickly so I would easily make my ten o’clock eye appointment and my twelve thirty class. The drive along the farm road was slippery but Seneca Hollow was fine and I had plenty of time to make the eye appointment in Blacksburg. Dr. Jacobs was midway through his very thorough exam when he asked me if I had time for the glaucoma test, which involved eye drops that would blur my vision for several hours. He said I could still drive if I wore sunglasses so I figured that I should get it over with. My vision was blurry when I left around eleven, but the drive to Radford wasn’t hard.
I taught my first class with blurry vision (I could hardly read the poems we were discussing) but I started getting worried when my eyes were still fuzzy and extremely sensitive to light at three. I called the doctor and one of his staff members told me that it could last a few more hours and not to be concerned. However, my eyes were the same when my three thirty class began, and more alarming was the information from a student that in her mother’s case the condition lasted three days. That was very unsettling and my sight was unchanged when I taught my last class at five. It was now dark and I certainly couldn’t drive home with blurry vision. I decided that I would just sleep in my office (which I have done very occasionally before) and midnight found me lying on my Thermarest mattress warmly snuggled in my sleeping bag, my vision finally okay.
By six I was up and working and when I checked the weather report, it said the day should be sunny and with temperatures in the low forties. That would be perfect for working on my road so I drove back to the hollow and headed up my road. It was slippery and bumpy but I made it fine and by ten thirty I was on the tractor scraping the warming road with some success. I worked for almost three hours and the road was much improved. I could see dirt in many spots and that meant that I would have traction this evening. I drove to Radford for office hours and my five o’clock class and then went out for dinner, since I was so confident that my road was in good shape. I got to the main gate around nine and the farm road was very tricky. The snow on top had melted and then refrozen and I had to keep my speed up so I wouldn’t get stuck. I wasn’t too worried about my road because of all the work I had done, but as soon as I passed my gate, I realized that my work hadn’t done much. The entire road had refrozen and was terribly slick. I was halfway up and I wasn’t sure what to do. I could park there, where it was pretty level, and walk up the remaining three hundred yards. But that would mean that in the morning I would have to back down over three hundred yards of very icy road. I decided to go for the top and hit the accelerator. My truck fishtailed up the hill bouncing hard against the built up, rock hard snow on the sides but I made it. I wondered if I had damaged one of the new tires, but they seemed okay when I checked them an hour later. This ride was too much and I had heard that a big snow was expected as early as tomorrow night. Big Bend seemed a million miles away.
After another restless night, I decided that I would spend the next three nights in Christiansburg. I packed my truck with enough stuff for an extended stay and then went to feed the trout. Half way to the trout pond, I hit a patch of ice and fell on my back. I lay there cursing the universe, shouting histrionic phrases like, “What have I done to deserve this?” but very close to genuine tears. I slowly got up and immensely relieved that I wasn’t really hurt (though my good knee was a bit strained) I changed my tone and thanked the hollow for all it had given me. I fed the trout and very gingerly worked my way back to the truck. When I turned the key, the engine cranked but it wouldn’t start and I almost panicked. I tried the key a few more times with the same result. I walked up the hill a bit (to where the cell phone worked) and called Nissan where the service manager told me to try it again and check for a particular icon on the dashboard. Wonderfully, the truck turned over and started and I was on my way, very slowly, down the still hard and slippery road.
When I got to the pasture I called Mike and told him that the earliest I would be back was Sunday afternoon, and that if he couldn’t get to my road by then, I would just stay another night at the Microtel in Christiansburg. He was fine with the plan and I felt much better that I wouldn’t have to battle the weather for at least a few days.

Friday, February 5, 2010

I had a restless night, no doubt due to my close encounter with the tractor kind. There was no way I could clear my road enough to make it safe, so after getting ready, I drove down the tight and bumpy path I had cleared and when I got to the pasture, called Mike. I asked him if knew someone or if he himself was willing to come up and take care of my road whenever we got a big snow. I named a price and he agreed, saying that he would be over later in the afternoon with his big tractor. Feeling better already, I drove carefully over the rest of the farm road, which was very slippery. Once I got on Seneca Hollow, conditions improved for the plows had already passed by and the drive to Christiansburg was uneventful.
I thought of my ex-partner and how through all this awful weather she was safe and comfortable in Blacksburg and I felt good about that. She hated driving in the snow and ice and she was now situated where she could walk to her office if need be. I have to give her credit for getting out of the hollow just before the start of this horrible winter. It was an absolute stroke of genius.
When I returned home Mike had done a good job of snow removal, but there were still some icy patches. When I talked to him later, he said that my earlier work on the road had made it more difficult to clear completely and suggested that if we got another snow to just wait until he could come up. He said that it was so icy at the steep parts that he had to go and get some hay to help with the traction. I told him that if we got any significant snow I would leave it to him, and I slept a lot easier that night.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I stood next to the tractor in a mixture of shock and delight. I was safe and I knew I could eventually get the tractor out although I could already sense that I would need Mike’s help. I examined the wheels of the tractor and saw that the front left wheel was not coming out easily. Even the much bigger back left wheel was off the road and leaning dangerously. Still, I have chains and heavy ropes and a racheted puller that I had used when I wanted to angle trees in the right direction when I was still doing some tree cutting. I decided to see what I could do myself, and in a half hour I had a chain attached to the tractor then to the puller then to a tree on the upper bank. I tightened the puller but nothing moved, and I didn’t want the strap on the puller to snap and perhaps injure me severely. It was time to call Mike and let a pro take over.
Mike was able to come up in a couple of hours and when he saw what I had done, the usually unflappable Mike was very upset. He told me that if I had gone another foot the tractor would have flipped. He didn’t have to describe what would have happened to me. He lectured me for a few minutes on tractor safety—the implications being that I was not qualified--and then he relaxed and we went to work on getting the tractor out. We tied a rope to the front of the tractor and then to a tree on the upper bank, and then attached the chains and puller to the back of the tractor. Both were very tight and I racheted the puller a half dozen clicks to make it even tighter. Mike tied a large strap to his truck and to the tractor (now in neutral) and the plan was for me to keep racheting as he pulled back with his truck. The problem was that no one would be on the tractor to perhaps use the bucket to help with getting out. Mike asked me if I wanted to get on and I admitted that I didn’t and I also said that we needed someone to work the puller. Mike thought about it for a minute then climbed aboard the tractor, started it up, put it in reverse, and with me ratcheting quickly he backed it up and safely onto the road.
I thanked him profusely, and then I drove the tractor back up to the house. I parked it and took a break, but I knew I had to get back on the tractor before I got completely spooked.
I remembered a kayaking trip where I flipped over in Zoar Gap on the Deerfield, broke my paddle and almost got caught under a huge boulder. It was a very scary moment and when I surfaced below the boulder after desperately kicking off, I was very happy just to be alive. I went to bed that night unsure of any more kayaking plans, but the next day I knew I had to get back on the water. A few hours later I was on the Sacandaga, which I handled very well even though I was pretty nervous starting out.
After my break I got back on the tractor and drove it slowly down to the gate, keeping to the middle and scraping a little snow off. That was the easy part since the blade was down and there was little chance the tractor would slide off. Coming back up with the blade up was where the tractor could slip and then I could be in trouble again. I turned around at my gate and back up I went, in fourth gear low, and by using the left brake, was able to get to the top although I could feel it slipping slightly on the steepest sections. I repeated my run and managed once again to get back up, although it slipped a little more this time. I was not accomplishing much—in fact, my two runs probably just compressed the snow and made it more slippery—but I was glad I had gotten back on the tractor. It was time to quit for the day and I realized that with any significant snowfall, my tractor (a John Deere 790, with a 30 horsepower engine) was too small and too light. I also understood that I was clearly not qualified to handle it under such conditions.