Gen 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.