If I could, I’d put every child within easy reach of a haystack in his or her early years. Today, long past childhood and far from the ranch on which I was born, I look out on a modern barn. Its 20-foot pole legs support a metal roof that shelters tons of hay, all baled.
Yesterday a giant, motorized monster gobbled these bales from the field and stacked them, domino-neat, under the high barn roof. The process was quick and efficient. Neatly stacked bales, however, hold neither the challenges nor the dream-inducing fragrance of a mound of freshly cut alfalfa. And although country youngsters nowadays might enjoy any number of hayloft fort activities, those loose-piled haystack of yesteryear still hold a special place in my heart.
When I was a child, the hay that fed our small dairy herd in the winter was summer-grown by my father on our ranch. “Five crops again this year,” Dad would say, hiding a proud smile behind a weathered hand. He and our hired man, Orville, hand-forked load after pungent load onto the hay wagon before it was towed to the stack by our team, Nellie and Duke. Once the heaped wagon was parked next to the haystack, Dad took his place on a rig he’d remodeled from an old mowing machine. It was simply two wheels, a seat above an axle, and a tongue to which Nellie and Duke were harnessed. This “hay stacker” controlled one end of a cable that ran from the stacker through a pulley high on a pole and dangled a clamshell-like loading fork.
Dad’s gloved hands gripped the reins as he talked the horses slowly forward, keeping watch over his shoulder. The great forkful of hay lifted off the wagon. Orville stood ready on the stack, guiding the laden, steel-jawed pendulum with a pitchfork. “Drop ‘er!” Dad shouted.
Orville jerked a cord. The jaws opened, dropping the load exactly where it was needed to “square out the stack.” Nellie and Duke, obeying Dad’s command, then backed until the big fork lowered to bite again into the remaining hay on the wagon.
My sisters and I watched, holding our breath between each lift and drop. But for us, the stack was much more than winter feed for the cows. It was our retreat for daring and reverie. Once the last cut of hay had been stacked, we’d climb the ladder to lie on the fragrant cushion, eyes toward the sky. We chewed sweet alfalfa stems and spun grand tales of future travels and careers that would rival movie queens Loretta Young and Myrna Loy.
We were allowed to rest here, but not to “romp around.” If Dad caught me and visiting playmates jumping in the hay, he would call out gruffly, “That alfalfy won’t take no roughin’ up.” But he seemed not to notice the bouncing of his beloved daughters, long since forgiven for not being the sons he needed on the ranch.
The stack’s height was a barometer of the seasons and, more than this, for me it was the annual test of my skill, and my courage, as I’d perform the soaring leap from barn roof onto the springy platform.
By spring, the past summer’s reserves of hay had dropped well below the highest edge of the barn’s roof, its ridge paralleling the haystack. Now I could plan my leap. It was an easy climb up the board fence onto a low edge of the barn roof. From there on, the ascent was scary. My heart pumped like a threshing machine. Barefooted, the better to cling to the slippery surface, I grasped the sharp, wavy edges of corrugated iron and brought my legs up, one knee at a time against the sun-warmed metal. Clinging with hands and knees, I inched along the grooves as I headed for the high ridge of the barn roof.
I wasn’t brave enough to walk upright. If I fell, I would roll down into the corral thick with manure. On my left was a drop of about 15 feet – the narrow chasm between the barn roof edge and the haystack.
When I finally reached the jumping spot, opposite the middle of the stack, I rose slowly, my arms outstretched for balance, until I gained full height. For a few exhilarating moments, I savored the panoramic view before me. To the east, the dusty blues and purples of the Inyo Range wavered with shifting cloud shadows, and to the west, the craggy Sierra cupped a glacier above its snow-lined face. They were the guardians of my beautiful world.
The distance down to the hay was about 10 feet. I filled my lungs with the warm spring air and leaped, expelling my breath with a yell in this self-imposed test of courage, caught for seconds in a time capsule of triumph before I crashed spread-eagle on the resilient cushion.
Now, as I look out on the modern barn in this modern ranch, I’ve made a decision. Before the grandchildren come, we’ll hold back a small stack from the baler and heap it near the tool shed. The kids can get to the roof from the corral fence. Everyone should have a haystack where he can test himself between earth and sky, and shout the joy of leaps into life.
When Willma was 10 years old, her mom and dad purchased a small dairy in Owens Valley, California. She spent her younger years helping wash bottles, and bottle and deliver milk in the nearby small towns of Lone Pine and Keeler.