Times Past: 4-Wheeling the West

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

February 20, 2017

Times Past at Carrot Ranch by @Charli_MillsGen X, rural California, USA

Granny-gear is as expected: slow, slow enough a toddler can drive. If that sounds surprising, you’ve not grown up on cattle ranches in the American west. Every buckaroo has stood behind the wheel (yes, stood because to sit is to lose sight over the dusty dash).

“Hold it straight, follow the rows,” were the instructions I remember.

Where are the adults, you might wonder. On the back of the truck, flaking hay.

Back when I was a toddling buckaroo on one of the oldest land grant ranchos in northern California, my task was to steer the truck straight so the adults could cut the wires on rectangular bales of hay (each weighing about 125 pounds) and peel away portions. The hay was dry and it came off in chunks called flakes. The herd of 300 black ballies (a nickname for the cross-breed of Black Angus and Red Hereford for which some calves were born black with white faces) trailed behind to get their winter hay.

Winter in this part of California was the wet and rainy season. It turned the blond hills green for a brief time. While the hills had time to grow grass beneath massive oak trees, the cattle roamed the barren hay fields and ate nubs and dry flakes. Feeding was a daily ritual and everyone worked, even the toddlers. Though I don’t recall thinking of my driving chore as work.

Just like with horses, I never had a fear of driving. Probably because I was exposed too young to have the common sense to fear large beasts and steel cages on wheels. By the time I was 13, I no longer lived in buckaroo country. My parents moved to the Sierra Nevada mountains where my mom ran a general store and my dad logged.

I worked in the summer logging camps, leaving for the job in a logging truck at 4 a.m. I had to be back by 3 p.m. to saddle my horse and ride out to check the cattle for a local ranch. My task was to keep the cattle from coming off the high summer pastures. Any I encountered, I’d have to push back to the mountain springs among quaking aspen.

Granny-gear took on new meaning this phase of life — it’s the lowest gear used to slow a logging truck on a mountain pass or a exit the rough-cut switchback known as a logging road. Hardly a road! Heading off the hill, as the phrase goes, requires low-gear and high prayers. I used to enjoy listening to C. W. McCall’s Wolf Creek Pass, an 8-track tape my dad had:

We’d gear down for our own Sierra Wolf Creek pass (the song is about a hairy switchback in Colorado) and at one corner I could see the wreck of a Cadillac from the ’60s. I remember the belch of the jake-brake as we approached and geared down to granny. We never lost a load, or a truck, either.

At the logging camp we had an old Willys Jeep, the kind the US used in WWII. The thing about a Willys is that in granny-gear it could go up, down, over and across anything. After lunch, I was allowed to take the Jeep for a drive, and I found pioner trails and even old mining camps in this ride. And many old roads required granny-gear and 4-wheel drive.

4-wheeling is a distinct western heritage and why so many people in the US West drive trucks. It’s what replaced the Conestoga wagon and horse. For me, a truck is a work vehicle. We have the Mills farm truck and have hauled our own firewood and had many adventures in it. But I still dream of one day having my own Willeys.

And you bet I’d take that Jeep 4-wheeling the back-roads of the west in granny-gear.


Join me and others in a look at wheels from Times Past with Irene Waters.

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  1. Luanne

    What a fascinating story about something I know absolutely nothing. Thanks for this!

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks for reading, Luanne. Now you know about granny gear!

    • Charli Mills


  2. thecontentedcrafter

    Gosh Charli, to me that young life of yours seems so exotic and exciting – I shall picture you driving your Willeys in granny gear over rough terrain and top gear on easy roads from now on!

    • Charli Mills

      It’s definitely a subculture. I still have a cousin who ranches (in Montana) and last I visited, her husband put the ranch truck in granny gear so the kids could drive the prairie. Now you know why I’m willing to go up those slick mesas! Trying to capture some of that adventure of exploration.

  3. ellenbest24

    Once i was challenged to write a story with a western feel and only my research for that short story enlightened me to some of which you discuss. You worked more than many a man ever did or probably ever will again. Great post enlightening, now I see where you get your grit. ????

    • Charli Mills

      Hard working folks, ranchers and cowpokes. By the way, True Grit was my favorite movie and Glenn Campbell sang the theme song. I think there’s yet much to write about in the western genre because women, no matter how true their grit, were often overlooked in the telling of tales.

      • ellenbest24

        Charli i may revisit my attempt at a humorous wesrern for you … Dad and I loved JW and true grit was the tops.????

      • Charli Mills

        That would be so much fun to read! I’m glad you and your Dad liked the Duke!

  4. SonniQ

    The good old days always sound more appealing – fresher and less polluted. Simpler times. I look back on my childhood when our food want full of cancer causing ingredients and there was no company called Monsanto ruining seeds and small farms, when Walmart want helping people apply for benefits that allow only the most meager existence. What will the good ole days look like for children born today?

    • Charli Mills

      What a profound question, Sonni. I have often encountered a nostalgia for the simpler times when my beat was local and organic food, yet grandparents or parents often left the farm to seek a better life. I’ve seen a resurgence in gardening and I think we will always find ways to put our hands in pure soil — sunshine, water and seeds. Thank you for reading!

      • SonniQ

        Yes, people are living through the ugly truth of what happens when you consume things that should never go into a body. We have illnesses now that people are now looking at as common when you get older that are not supposed to be common but since so many people have it – diabetes for one – it’s been normalized and no big deal. People’s would rather die than give up terrible food. Yes gardens are growing. I love seeing the gardens on to of tall buildings in NYC. YES, people will find away as Monsanto destroys commercial seeds. People will learn or it will destroy them. I won’t dare eat anything made from commercial wheat. Those fields are sprayed with round up ready to kill it early and at the same time.If you look on labels almost everything has wheat in it.So yes, the good old days of not long ago when food was made from scratch. Hard for today’s family to do but most families should take better care, as I glance into shopping carts and bite my tongue from asking, “Are you REALLY going to eat that?”

      • Charli Mills

        When I worked in the industry, I was around many health-minded individuals. But one day, we hadthis funny conversation about our favorite junk food from the ’70s. It left me craving a Ho-Ho and Kraft Mac & Cheese! And I KNOW that’s not food! But there is the psychological element of “comfort food” and the reality that cheap fillers parading as food is more affordable than fresh. GMO corn is in everything, too. That’s why I support community gardens and local food. I loved living in Idaho where we could barter for eggs and grow our own garden. I hope you get to dig in the dirt this season!

  5. Liz Husebye Hartmann

    So cool, and so different from me, growing up in a midwest metropolis!

    • Charli Mills

      It feels like a lifetime ago. It was good for me to experience the midwest metropolis (suburban, actually) lifestyle, too.

  6. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    You were right Charli. You have a wheels experience that is beyond the understanding of most of us. Perhaps it would be similar growing up in the outback in Australia but I didn’t do that. What wonderful memories. I can tell you with my neuroses I would not have survived, granny gear or not. I think I’d be with that old (same age as me) cadillac. I hope one day you do write a memoir of your life growing up. Although you are a generation further on when you write of your experiences they seem to be a generation further back. Your world is a world that didn’t move in time. Thank you for sharing. I loved reading.

    • Charli Mills

      Ha! I can’t escape my country music roots, and I especially like the folk-ballad style of bluegrass. Thanks for listening to the song and reading. I really like what you said: “Your world is a world that didn’t move in time.” I think that is true. Even now, I can step back in time, visiting my cousin or visiting one of the ranches down here. The Outback is comparable (minus alligators)! Thanks for the opportunity to explore memoir.

      • Charli Mills

        You’ve certainly made it approachable, and I like the comparisons between place and time.

  7. Annecdotist

    Reminds me of the scene in ‘Oh Brother where art thou’ where the boy drives a truck with blocks on the pedals so he can reach them!
    It’s similar on some farms here in the UK that kids learn to drive when their peers are still on roller skates.

    • Charli Mills

      Yes, much like that scene! I think on the farm or ranch, a truck is a tool. In some states the legal driving age is as young as 12, provided one lives in an agricultural district.

  8. Sherri

    Loved this Charli, and yes, I agree with Irene, you really should write your memoirs of your early buckaroo days, what great stories you have to tell! I didn’t know about ‘granny gear’ and despite all my years of living in the US, I didn’t realise the historical connection behind the love of trucks and 4-wheeling, whether living on a farm or not! It makes sense to me now…I just thought it was because the roads are bigger! I can’t be in anything smaller than a 4-wheeler even now and, I say this as honest truth, I have always wanted a Willys Jeep!

    • Charli Mills

      Oh, I dream of Willey! Once you drive a 4×4 its hard to be satisfied driving something smaller. 🙂

      • Sherri

        Definitely! 🙂

  9. Kate

    I believe women showed as much grit as the men in the wild west; it took everyone from toddlers to granny’s to work together to stay alive. I suspect there are still a few toddler buckaroos driving in ‘granny gear’ out on some ranch or farm. I agree with Irene and Sherri, your memoirs would make for a very interesting and enlightening read.

    • Charli Mills

      Pioneers and homesteaders required much work just to survive and the farms and ranches that grew out of settlement of the west and indeed it required grit from all. It’s good to write such memoir in small blocks. My mind likes the what if imaginative realm and wanders off to fiction! Thanks!

  10. julespaige

    A much different adventure from a city raised ‘kid’ who only occasionally visited the country during the summers. 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      There were many city families that came to my town and a few friendships developed. I even got to teach several other young teens to drive the Jeep or ride horse.

      • julespaige

        I can ride a horse…(might need some help in the saddling depo though) and I can even drive stick shift, though I haven’t done either in many years. 🙂


  1. Wheels: Times Past | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist) - […] Times Past: 4-Wheeling the West […]

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