Spring came early in 2012. It was an exceptional year of little snow, strong winds and unseasonably high temperatures. I remember it well. March 2012 was when we took possession of our red brick century home in West Lake. Newly retired and unfamiliar with country living we were eager to assimilate and learn all things County. It was a steep learning curve covering such things as septic systems, wells, guns firing off at dawn and loose chickens on the road.
During the week of March 18 straight through until March 25th our County experienced a strange phenomenon. It was still technically winter but every day our temperatures soared into the 20s. We hit an unbelievable 26 degrees on that Thursday. Everyone threw off their light coats and walked around in shorts and sandals. Let me repeat: this was March, in Canada. A winter miracle. It was so hot and dry that the County declared a total fire ban.
We had been indoors packing, moving, then unpacking for weeks. By that Sunday, we had the house was more or less in running order. It was time to venture outdoors and explore our new property. We owned 2.6 acres. A third of that was forest and brush and the rest lawns, or should I say unkept brown straw. The previous owner had moved out without bothering with the fall clean up. The place was littered with fallen branches and a thick covering of last autumn’s dead leaves. We stood surveying our acreage. The sandy soil was cracking open in the heat and great gusts of hot wind stirred up dust. It sure was crazy weather.
I decided that afternoon to cut the long grass and mulch some of those leaves. First, I needed a lesson on how to operate our new John Deere lawn tracker. I called my husband over.
“Well obviously this is where the key goes. This is the clutch. Press down before you turn this. Between your legs is the lever that drops the deck. Over here, if you lower this down it starts the blade. This is how you reverse. OK? …… Go to it.”
Always lacking in patience, my husband then walked away. Lesson complete. I didn’t hear half of what he said after showing me where the key went in. I had never operated anything with a clutch before. I didn’t even know how to change gears on a bicycle. This little lawn mower looked terrifying.
I climbed aboard; careful where I put my weight. Before turning the key, I reviewed what I knew about operating vehicles in general. The brake was all important. Check. Steering wheel – no issues. I looked down at the shifter. R – reverse, N – neutral, 1 through 5. I guessed that 1 was the slowest because it was next to the N. Right?
The direct path in front of the mower was clear of any trees or solid obstacles. My greatest worry was that the tractor would leap forward at a sudden great speed and give me a whip lash. I summoned my courage; put my foot squarely on the brake and turned the key. The engine started up. “Ok now. Step 2”
With great trepidation I slowly forced the shifter into first gear. Nothing happened. I shifted into second gear and the tires rolled forward; granted extremely slowly.
“Alright. I can do this”
I was sweating. It was stressful but also the sun was glaring down. The trees were still bare. With no shade the light was actually blinding bright. Fortunately, I was now driving my little John Deere lawn mower. It was surprisingly cooling. I had progressed into third gear and the passing air blew into my face and lifted my hair. It turned out to be great fun. I was a natural. Around the trees I steered, leaning into the curve. It was awesome. I did another figure eight and slipped into forth gear – almost flying.
Unfortunately, the dry leaves kept bunching up underneath the rider mower’s deck. It was worst when I drove over a fallen branch. Large twigs positioned themselves right behind the front wheel and act like giant sweepers, collecting and dragging along a swath of dead leaves. Repeatedly I had to stop the mower, climb down and pull the branches and leaves out from under the machine. What a bother. About the third time I noticed this occurring, I chose to ignore the situation and just carry on. Big mistake! The pile grew larger. I was like a snow ball rolling down a mountain getting bigger and bigger. That was when I noticed a small ribbon of smoke rising from the engine. “A fire?” “HOLY CRAP!” Apparently, the situation was more serious than I had suspected. I turned the key off and some real flames shot out from underneath.
“Reverse! Reverse!” My thinking was if I could just drive the tractor backwards away from the gathered branches and dead leaves, at least the tractor would be safe. The engine would not turn over. F**K!. I hopped off and stupidly started to stomp on the smoldering mess. That seemed too ineffective and dangerous. The fire was spreading. “Oh, my gosh. The fire ban!” I looked across my lawn over to my neighbor’s large field and several mighty black oak trees to my right.
My next move was to slip the gears into neutral and pull on the back of the seat. The beast wouldn’t move. I don’t understand why. I did a quick review. The house, water, and possible help were a long way away. No one was around if I called out. Oh my gosh what to do? This was all so embarrassing. I was about to destroy the rider mower and possibly burn the whole lower half of the County all in my first week living here. The flames were now licking up around both front wheels and spreading quickly.
I started stomping. Like a mad woman my feet pounded and pawed at the burning grass. I kicked the surrounding leaves back so that nothing new would ignite. With grinding action sparks were snuffed hard into the dirt. I seized a strong stick and used this to poke into the rubble, swiping and scattering the embers. I even used my hands to pull out some of the larger twigs stuck between the front tires and the engine. It was like a burning nest but when untangled and exposed to air the blaze seemed to lose its energy. Slowly, I made progress. It was dying out on its own.
When all of the smoke was gone and the fire seemed contained, I made a long dash up to the house for water. The kitchen tap was so slow. I imagined a roaring inferno happening outside while waiting for my pails to fill up. It took several trips back and forth with heavy sloppy buckets before I was confident the crisis was over. By then I was a wreck. My knees were shaking with exhaustion and my throat burned.
Time to assess the damage. Surprisingly, the tractor looked ok. There were no obvious black soot smears on the green paint. No plastic pieces seemed melted. The tires hadn’t exploded. In fact, they looked fine. Cautiously I turned the ignition key. Wonders of wonders – the motor turned over. Hallelujah! In summary: The tractor seemed none the worst. The forest was still standing and thankfully none of my neighbours seemed to have noticed. Driving in a conservative third gear I headed up to the garage. I had been lucky, very, very lucky. It would be several months before I had the courage to drive the little John Deere again.