With a long meeting scheduled for midday, I decided to take the boys for an early morning walk and add another at the end of the day. Our morning outing featured a sky with high wind-strewn clouds painted with the rising sun’s gentle orange and pink hues. Our late afternoon walk was completed just before a brilliant orange sunset, squeezing between the clouds above and mountains below, offered a cheerful goodbye before nightfall. Beautiful colored-sky bookends to the daylight hours.

The day was cold and crisp, snow covering the landscape. Our afternoon walk was along a one-mile stretch of road we walk frequently, out and back again.There’s just one house and little if any traffic. The boys can be off-leash, diving into and across the ditches after voles, following their noses. It’s so quiet I can hear the telephone wires along the road buzzing with conversation. Houses few and far between, the poles carry just four wires. When in use they vibrate, causing a buzzing and scratching sound where they connect to each pole. It feels like I’m eavesdropping as I walk underneath.

dogs running on snowy road
The boys dashing down the road that is the frequent site of our walks.

Shortly after the boys and I set out, a local rancher approaches in his truck, hauling hay on a flatbed trailer to his property. Jim and I frequently chat and I’ve come to know him because I often park – with his permission – where he keeps his machinery and hay. He’s always willing to keep his own dog in his truck if I’m nearby with mine, which I so appreciate. I didn’t expect to see him here so late on a Saturday, so when I see his truck approach with the hay, I wave him to a stop because I’m worried I’ve parked in a place inconvenient to him.

signs and fences
This is Jim’s corner, aka bullshit bend. No buildings, just fences, gates, lots of broken-down equipment and vehicles, and a sense of humor. (Photo taken November 2019.)

Rather than roll down his window – which must be broken; it’s a well-used ranch pickup – Jim opens the driver’s door to talk to me. My nose is instantly hit with a wave of incredibly strong-smelling smoke from…? My imagination goes wild. It smells a little like pot, but surely not this guy, a life-long rancher in the area who’s well into his sixties. Maybe he’s been smoking a cigar, or pipe, while driving with windows up? I’ve never seen him smoke, and he’s not holding anything now, but…who knows?

I offer to return to move my car but he says not to worry, it’s fine where it is. He asks if I’m starting out on my walk or returning; if the latter, he’ll keep his dog in his truck. I assure him it’s fine to let his dog roam as the boys and I have just started our walk and are heading away from where he’ll be working. With a quick wave Jim heads on toward his property while the boys and I continue walking. But I puzzle on the smoky smell for a bit. Odd.

After walking a mile down to the end of the road, the boys and I turn back. About a half mile from my car I spot smoke drifting up near where it’s parked. That’s odd. I wonder if Jim has a burn barrel? I’ve never seen one. Then I wonder if my car has spontaneously combusted, but reassure myself that the smoke would be much heavier and blacker if that were the case. The boys and I keep walking, but the smoke makes me nervous, it’s so out of place.

Nearing my car, I put the boys on leash, just in case Jim’s dog is nearby. As I get to my car, I see that the trailer of hay that he hauled there and parked directly across the road from my car is smoldering. That’s the source of the smoke – a hay fire!

Can hay spontaneously combust? I rack my brain. I think it can.

smoldering hay bales
Smoldering hay bales.

Quickly putting the boys in my car, I look for Jim. He’s off in one of his fields with his tractor, spreading pitchforks of hay across the pasture for his cattle. I try throwing some snow on the hay smoldering on the trailer but I’m barely making a dent in the embers and smoke. I can’t just leave without making sure Jim knows his trailer’s on fire, even if just barely.

I yell Jim’s name as loud as I can, several times, but his practice is to let his tractor move along slowly on its own while he stands on the attached trailer, pitching hay onto the ground every few feet. Of course he can’t hear me over the sound of the tractor’s engine.

tractor pulling hay trailer
Tractor pulling the trailer with Jim, pitching hay. Smoke rises from burning hay on the ground between the tractor and the cattle.

I start hiking through his field. He’s left the gate open, knowing the cattle will be so interested in their feed that they won’t try to leave. That’s when I see a pile of hay on the snowy ground, burning with bright orange flames. Two cows are close by munching on other bits of hay.

man pitching hay from trailer
You can see the burning hay bale on the ground, just beyond the tractor’s right tire. The cattle don’t care, they’re hungry.

Things just keep getting stranger.

I continue walking toward the slow-moving tractor. Luckily the snow isn’t deep. I expect Jim to be surprised to see me and stop his tractor’s progress, but no, he smiles a hello from the trailer bed as he keeps pitching hay onto the ground. The tractor makes its pokey but steady progress down the slope, engine rumbling, the cattle eagerly moving toward the spots of hay tossed on the ground. It’s near sundown and daylight is quickly disappearing, so I get that Jim’s got a job to complete before nightfall. No time to waste chatting.

“The hay on your trailer is smoldering,” I yell to Jim over the sound of the tractor engine. “I’m worried it’ll burn though to the trailer.” I don’t say aloud the obvious, that his truck, with gas in the tank, is attached to the trailer. I have no idea how fast hay burns.

Chuckling without breaking his hay-pitching rhythm, Jim says, “Thanks for noticing.” He says he’s aware of it, adding that he pitched part of one burning bale onto the ground, pointing with his pitch fork to the spot I’d noticed earlier, the hay that’s still burning on the snow and tossing bright flames into the fading light.

Jim explains that the strings around the other bale on the trailer kept him from pulling it apart quickly. He had the cattle to feed before dark, it had already been a bad day that wasn’t getting better, so he decided he’d deal with the smoldering hay on the trailer later. Sheepishly, but with the friendly honesty I’ve come to appreciate about him, Jim admits that he had replaced one of the trailer’s tires but the new one was too large, rubbing something under the trailer and sparking the hay afire.

Bad day, indeed. Still, chores need to get done, and cattle need to eat.

I decided that if Jim wasn’t worried about the smoldering hay on his trailer, I wasn’t going to be, either. I gave his dog Chase a treat from my pocket (I always have treats in a pocket when I walk with my dogs) and returned to my car. Smelling the smoldering hay on the trailer again, it dawned on me that the smokey smell I had noticed when Jim stopped his truck and opened the door to chat was the hay on his trailer burning. Not pot or a tobacco pipe.

The mystery was solved in a way that matches my impressions of this particular rancher – hard working, easy-going, funny and kind. And practical.

Nature’s parting shot for the day.

Postscript: A version of this story popped up in my Facebook memories today, a post from this day one year ago. Late this morning I drove by Jim’s pastures on my way to feed a friend’s cats. Jim was standing on that same trailer, pitching hay onto the ground for his cattle. This time, his truck was pulling the trailer rather than the tractor, and there were no hay bales combusting, but otherwise, one year flowed seamlessly into the next.

Featured image: the sky at sunrise while out walking the morning of December 15, 2018.

8 thoughts on “Combustion”

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