Russ Ringsak

Home improvement at the Broken D Ranch

September 1, 2003

It was a busy summer for the truck driver. Rode the hawg out to Wyoming and Montana with a couple of pals, going out and back before the Sturgis rally. We took old U.S. 12 to Mobridge, where at sunset we crossed through the steel trusses over the Missouri to the Sacajewa Monument and the grave of Sitting Bull. The site is on a high hill, a starkly beautiful place overlooking Lake Oahe and the town to the east, and to the north the graceful bridge from which the town most likely took its name.

We stayed on the east bank and set out next day for Miles City. The land changes at the river, from slightly rolling farmland to rising prairie hills, and the weather changed at the same place, from sunny sky to solid rain. It soaked us good, exactly as it had the day before. It cleared again at noon and got blazing hot and by four o'clock the leathers were dry and so were we—parched, in fact. And whatever other reasons there are to ride without a windshield, surely the best one is that it makes beer taste so good.

Without running a travelogue by you, I will say that if you visit the Montana Bar in Miles City, the Mint Bar and the King Saddlery & Museum in Sheridan, cross the Bighorn Mountains into Cody, go north to the Chief Joseph Highway and then cross Beartooth Pass and drop into Red Lodge; and from there take Highway 78 to the New Atlas Bar in Columbus and on west to the Owl in Livingston—if you take that trip I guarantee you will tell people about it. Not only for the National Historic Registered saloons -- you don't have to drink -- but for the mountains and plains, for the grand and amazing vistas opening like dreams, one into the next. And you may even see a grizzly, as we did. We stopped and went into the wildflower meadow to get closer, and you gauge yourself, always keeping your distance to the bear twenty times greater than the run to your vehicle.

Our stated purpose for the ride this year was to attend the Livingston Blues Festival featuring Little Charlie and the Night Cats and they were dynamite and we agreed we would have ridden through hell and grasshoppers the whole way just for that. And on the return trip we didn't run through either one but we did have a couple of interesting moments, the first in western North Dakota on Interstate 94 when we were bombing along about 80 and got passed by a carload of kids in a Chevy. They made challenging hot-dog gestures and we stayed cool and when they got two hundred yards ahead of us there came that sudden POW! and the smoke from the left rear tire and the little panic swerve, and as they slid over to the right shoulder the entire tread came free and passed them, rolling like a big flat dark-chocolate donut. It turned ahead of us and looped to the right and came back into the middle and did a graceful little spin there, wobbling like a spent top as we flew by on both sides of it.

And the next morning, still in Dakota land, we had a tailwind and were moving right smartly towards Fargo when up ahead a Peterbilt pulling a flatbed with a load of building materials lost the right rear duals on the trailer, both wheels and tires. They broke free, separated and followed the truck for a while and he was already slowing down when they curved side by side off to the right and went bounding like deer into the shallow ditch; the one on the left headed into the wheat field but the one on the right took a quick turn in the grass and hooked back up onto the pavement. It crossed behind Jim and in front of Steve and myself and then dove into the center median and fell down. An odd sensation, to be riding with truck tires rolling down the interstate by themselves.

The air-powered impact wrench has probably saved as many lives as any safety device, and truck wheels coming off is a rare sight these days. It used to happen more often, when the tightness of the lug nuts depended entirely on a guy with a big wrench. Years ago, driving truck one late afternoon in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan, I was real surprised to see in the mirror a wheel come off the left side of my trailer and go rolling out into the snow in the median; I turned around at the next exit and went back for it and found the track where it rolled but no wheel, just another set of tracks from the guy behind me who had pulled over and walked out there and rolled it back to his truck.

At the repair shop the man told me I lost a good tire but the wheel was probably shot anyway, because what happens is one nut gets just a bit loose and a hammering effect starts on its neighbors, and the holes get slightly larger with each revolution, until others loosen and the wheel comes free. Impact wrenches tighten them all to the same torque and have nearly eliminated that old wheel problem. But plenty of tires still blow and I tell people to stay away from those nasty trucks and don't linger alongside and don't tailgate 'em. Pass'em and get out of the way. A truck in motion is best admired from some distance.

Back home at the Broken D Ranch waited the end of vacation: the much-needed demolition of the back porch and the building of a sun room there, twice the size. We fortunately had hired Minnesota's best carpenter and I spent a goodly part of the next five weeks as a carpenter's helper, chain sawing, Bobcatting, shoveling, pick-axing, jackhammering, sledgehammering, regular hammering, mixing concrete, wheelbarrowing, and holding the dumb end of a tape measure. It's all enclosed now and the giant dumpster is gone. The interior phase has begun and we are on our own. Insulation, sheetrock, bead board, flooring, paint, varnish. Electrical hookups.

Everyone should do this, but not more than once. You can find many other things to drive you crazy that are absolutely free and perfectly safe and don't involve repeated trips to lumber yards and hardware stores to write gigantic checks. Yesterday I was driving home with a head full of accumulated evil thoughts about the home repair place, so preoccupied with it I got a speeding ticket. I'm declaring the fine, 120 bucks, on my taxes as an office improvement expense.

(The Broken D is called a ranch in the way that a window box can be called a farm. It's like a ranch in that it has a long driveway and you can see the sky. A person could maybe raise a steer here if they really had to, but they would have to learn something about fencing. Raising barley in a window box would be easier.)

The renovation in the back led to the pulling back of a piece of suspect siding on the front porch and the discovery of a vast conspiracy of carpenter ants, so named not for their building skills but for the fact that if you have them you need a carpenter. The name is demeaning to carpenters of course and changing it to demolition ants might be demeaning to demolition experts. 'Property devaluation ants' would be accurate, and it would give them that colorless dead and blameless aura so favored by the politically correct.

They were living in wood that was scrap even before they started chewing on it. The porch was built from re-used 2x4s in 1950, 64 years after the main house was built; the year was printed on the Libby's Gay Nineties cardboard posters they tacked in there for insulation. And in three days Minnesota's best carpenter had stripped the siding and the Libby's cardboard and had replaced the entire 4x6 edge beam and all the studs and put new insulation, tar paper, siding and trim out there. Now it looks like new. Because it is.

I'm still not.

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