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Side Hill Mechanic

As I was approaching the sheep on Shanley Hill on Thursday morning, I heard a clunk from the right front wheel of my truck, followed by a lack of steering.  Upon inspection, I discovered that the right tie rod had failed - in fact, the ball joint at the right wheel had come apart.  Since my 2005 Dodge has more than 245,000 miles on it, I wasn't shocked.  Stressed about the expense of the repair, yes - but not shocked.

Since I'd broken down on a muddy ranch road on the side of the hill, calling a tow truck was probably out of  the question.  Furthermore, the expense of having a mechanic fix it seemed overwhelming.  After shouting a few four-letter words to nobody in particular (except my dogs and the sheep), I decided I'd try to repair the tie rod myself.

This morning, equipped with a new tie rod (to the tune of $168 and change), my modest tool box, and my border collie Taff, I tackled the repair.  With some coaching from my brother-in-law Adrian (a much better mechanic than I) - and moral support from Taff, I was able to make the repair in about 90 minutes.  I'll need to have the front end of my truck aligned, but the repair is done.  If I'd had the mechanic do it, I'd have likely spent more than $400.  I shouted a few happy four-letter words to Taff and the sheep!

My experience has made me think about several topics I've discussed in recent posts.  In my essay "40 Acres and a Mule - or 75 Cows and a Living," I discussed the fact that life has become more expensive than it was 30 or 40 years ago.  One factor in this increased expense is the complicated technology upon which we rely.  My first truck was a 1963 Chevy.  I was able to do basic maintenance (tune-ups, oil changes, etc.) myself - no computers or special tools were necessary.  My 2005 Dodge truck - a diesel - is much more intimidating.  I've not done much maintenance - or any repairs (until today) - myself.  Consequently, my newer truck is much more expensive to own.

Removing the tapered pins on the tie rod ball joints from the steering knuckle requires one to strike the knuckle sharply with a hammer.  This particular repair required me to remove two pins in this fashion.  In another recent essay, "10,000 Hours of Farming" (posted on the Foothill Farming website), I've considered the value of putting in the time to learn a particular task.  I'm a much more efficient and effective shepherd today than I was 10 years ago - because I've invested significant time in building my skills.  When I picked up the parts from the mechanic yesterday, he gave me a bit of coaching.  "Do you know the difference between an apprentice mechanic and a journeyman mechanic?" he asked.  I did not. "It comes down to knowing how hard to swing the hammer!" he told me.  As I was swinging the hammer this morning, I finally swung it hard enough to accomplish the job!

I still have a few repairs to make to my truck, but I'm finding this prospect to be far less daunting that it would have been just last week.  I'm also finding myself longing for simpler times.  When I farmed with my mule, I joked that one of my motivations was the fact that I'd married a large animal veterinarian rather than a diesel mechanic.  Had I been riding my mule (or driving my '63 Chevy) on Thursday morning rather than driving my technologically "advanced" Dodge, it would not have been as big a deal!  Maybe successful small-scale ranching requires thoughtful simplification to be profitable!

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