The Best Laid Plans

Credit: National Wildlife Federation

Big Timber, Montana   It’s not because we weren’t up early. We had to pick up a spare tire for the trailer at 730, and I had a radio taping at 8:30, so we were hoofing it.

The signs for trouble were all there though. The tire was ready, but they had not been able to find a wheel, but what can you do. Then finding a place to park the truck and trailer in downtown Missoula was a challenge. We ended up on the other side of the railroad tracks, just a couple of blocks from the “Break,” our headquarters when we’re in town. But, that’s a couple of blocks as the crow files before the rail yard, no doubt wisely, fenced it all in, so we had to trudge our way to a crossover, up three flights and down the same, and then across the bridge and over in order to make it to the Break by 825 am to find the electricity and therefore the internet were down. The place was full of people sitting in the dark. Chaco’s phone worked so we got the interview in the nick of time, and the lights came on. We Uber-ed back to the truck and my phone worked well enough to handle the Skype call with our interns in Bengaluru, so maybe our luck was changing.

Not really. Thirty miles out of town and just four miles from the Rock Creek Road turnoff, our old standby, the truck suddenly seem to be straining and losing power. A motorcyclist drove by and pointed at the back of the trailer. Sure enough, the radials on the suspect tire had unraveled. That began a 3 ½ hour hurt dance extravaganza. We loosened the tire lugs, then backed the trailer over a small piece of 2×6 to lift it up enough to take the tire off. Then we went through the routine of jacking up the hitch as a trailer stand and unhitching and blocking the tires. No repair in Drummond, so we ended up in Deer Lodge 50 miles away. Long story short, we were lucky to make it to Big Timber by 6pm after crawling over the Continental Divide outside of Butte and then Bozeman’s Pass, but by then we knew Wyoming was another day.

There’s a lesson here. The other day we were talking with Tom France and Meg Haen, old friends and colleagues, now with the National Wildlife Federation. We were talking about conservation programs that had worked with the grizzly bears, long a Tom specialty, and his argument, gaining increasing traction from his organization and others, that they are best safeguarded by taking them off the federal endangered list and devolving them to state protections, which he argues are actually superior in most states in the West. The more difficult problem where he has had to shift emphasis recently is protecting the salmon run in Washington State blocked by the dams and powerful political coalitions of conservative rural local, state, and federal forces and Democrats interested in protecting the dam building legacy of former office holders like Senator Scoop Jackson and others that advocated for them strongly along with cheaper power.

A political advertisement was running on CNN in the break area in Big Timer that was a message to Interior Secretary Zinke here in the heart of his former Montana base. The ad was from sportsmen and backcountry outfitters and campers claiming he was reneging on his promise to protect the land in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt with his review and opposition to monument designated and protected lands. It would be a mistake to think everyone out here in the West is part of the 36% of classic right base that Trump is currying so assiduously.

We adapted our journey to the environment and tools at hand in another lesson of what happens to “best laid plans.” Seems like Washington DC and Washington State might need to take a look at the lessons we were relearning yesterday as well.

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The Unappreciated Value and Marvel of Physics in Daily Life

front view of the old Suburban and the even older Silver Bullet

Missoula   Last day in Montana was full of goodbyes. Meeting friends made over recent years at the Railroad Farmers’ Market and old friends and comrades for a quick dinner was fun and nostalgic. I slept on a cot in the backyard of another old friend and veteran organizer last night in a place where we had regularly stopped to visit, do our laundry, shower, and depot gear, batteries, and even a ‘78 Toyota pickup we had acquired for several years to beat the rental car scams from airport to fishing camp. It was finally hitting people who had gotten used to our annual summer visits over seven seasons, that our Montana ticket was being punched, we were going to be Wyoming people for the foreseeable future.

The day had been filled with errands, replacing missing tools and water containers, topping off the propane tanks, and arranging for a spare tire for the trailer in order to be prepared. The key task of the day had been rendezvousing with a friend who had offered to help oversee all the details and formalities of guaranteeing our safety in hitching the Airstream to the Suburban. Yes, we had pulled trailers of different shapes and sizes before and seen to the hitches, but we still counted ourselves as raw rookies called to pinch hit from time to time over the span of years. We wanted the extra security of experienced supervision.

hitching up

The dynamics of weight transfer and distribution between the trailer, the hitch, and the truck were a short course in the fundamental physics of daily life. I kept thinking how easily a teacher with hands-on experience could convince young men from rural America the value of science through such applied instructions.

First, we dealt with weight distribution in the 35 foot plus trailer. We hoisted the portable generator into the trailer and then lifted it back to the bathroom hall at the tail end of the trailer. We had already placed each propane tank in opposite closets behind the bunks there. We then moved the three heavy marine batteries to the back as well, adding probably another 100 pounds over the back tires.

Then to the hookup. The hitch is not just a simple matter of lining up the trailer with the various sized balls on the truck hitch, though that was not easy either since the ground’s surface varies between rock and soft holes, and the trailer weight falls off the wooden blocks rested under its frame at different angles. Meanwhile you are hardly breathing as you make sure the hydraulic jack doesn’t let trailer frame too fast or miss the ball.

back view

On a heavy rig like this the “sway” bars and stabilizers are also key. The heavy iron bars have chain links on the end. They have to be set in the hitch itself, and my brother law had ground them down so they would do so perfectly, but it catches at a right angle with a pull, so if you’re not paying attention in class, this can be aggravating as you watch them fall to the ground. Then you apply the tension as you lever up the chain to the bracket on the hitch frame that is welded into the trailer. Whoops, we weren’t looking at where the chains were that go from the trailer frame to truck hitch, so those have placed underneath and then crisscrossed to the hitch near the truck frame.

Is all this important? Mercy, yes! When it all miraculously works, it prevents the trailer from fishtailing and swerving behind you as you drive and steadies it to the direction of the truck. It also means that the trailer won’t end up slipping off like behind you endangering everyone on the highway.

The wind came up during the night and Wyoming has sent us a message that there are wind warnings on the road.

If you want to learn about physics in a way you’ll never forget, then hook up and put it on the highway to Wyoming some day. If we get over the Continental Divide, we’ll feel like we’re home free the rest of the way.

another hitch shot

***

Please enjoy The Mallett Brothers’ Long Black Braid.

Thanks to KABF.

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