Working Outside of My Comfort Zone

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather
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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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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!

Photos by Cam Mather.

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