Driving my Ford Tractor and Bush Hog – A Meditation
Operating an antique tractor can be a very spiritual experience. By spiritual I mean it causes you to focus on the present moment with great clarity. Ekart Tolle talks about how race car drivers are focuses on the present moment by race driving. I have experienced that as well, but I find the present moment focus required to safely operate my Ford 601 and bush hog is right up there with Rally Racing for being present in the moment.
The spiritual journey begins with preparing to crank the old tractor. My old Ford runs well if it is used often, but like any mechanical device it tends toward entropy when neglected. This tractor is often particularly hard to start when it has set a spell.
The normal procedure is to add gasoline because the old gas has leaked out even with the valve on the bottom of the tank closed. The next step is to use the screwdriver that I store in a hole in the dash to open the gas valve. If I am extremely lucky, the battery will have enough power to turn over the engine. Normally just the added enrichment from the choke will not be enough to start my 601. I usually have to give it a shot of starting fluid to bring it to life. This is done by disconnecting the hose from the air cleaner to the up draft carb and squirting the ether into the hose and quickly refitting it before the starting fluid runs back out.
Hitting the starter then usually results in the tractor roaring to life with lots of black smoke out the exhaust. A few tugs on the choke lever will normally stabilize the idle.
I have made a few upgrades to this 600 series Ford since I have had it. I found it on my grandfather’s farm after he passed away. The story is that he rebuilt the engine and then was never able to start it. I found it in a shed that had collapsed around the tractor. I found that he had installed the plug wires on the wrong plugs. Once I corrected the firing order, I was able to start the tractor.
The original generator was missing, so I installed a GM style single wire alternator on a fabricated bracket. I later got tired of filing points each time it sat a while so I added an electronic ignition. This was by far the best upgrade I have made to the tractor. I used to have to carry an ignition point file in my pocket when I used the tractor because some time during the day the points would ash over and stop firing. The electronic ignition has really helped with starting up as well.
This past weekend I decided to do some bush hogging. I made the mental and emotional preparations for the normal battle to crank the tractor. I was prepared to systematically work my way through the normal corroded electrical connections of clogged fuel passages until the tractor came to life. However this time, I hit the starter switch and the tractor simply ran. I was almost disappointed. The hydraulics even worked the first time I pulled the lever to raise the bush hog.
The brakes on a Ford 600 series tractor are good for some excitement on my very hilly land. The left brake works much better than the right so I get used to making most of my sharp turns to the left. But going down the steep hill behind my barn to get to the land on the other side of the creek is always an adventure. Even with my full body weight on the brake pedals, I can’t stop it going down the hill. So, once I start down, I am committed. It is best to scout the route before I start down.
To make the decent as safe as possible I stop at the top of the hill and lower the bush hog to the ground for maximum drag. Then I drop the throttle to the lowest idle speed. I ease the tractor forward and let the engine hold back the forward progress. Also, because in a few very unnerving events in the past, I keep firm pressure o the shifter holding it in 1st gear so that it does not pop out of gear. Since it take both hand to handle the steering wheel on the uneven slope, I have to hold the shifter with my knee.
While my Jeep has no trouble dropping into the creek, the ledge is too high for the bush hog to follow. I have to drive along the creek bank and drop in at a gentler slope. I then drive along the creek bed and back up the other side of the crossing.
Now I can finally engage the PTO and get the bush hog blades spinning. If the grass is tall like it usually is, I have to watch for fallen trees and limbs as I drive along.
I recently put new rear drive tires on the tractor. The old ones had quite a few cuts in them and I had to be very careful what I drove over. Now with my new tires, I am much more confident in driving over logs and limbs.
While driving over the rugged terrain, I am constantly monitoring the feedback of the pressure on the steering wheel as the front tires make there ways through the ruts and over fallen limbs. I listen intently to the sound of the spinning blades for any signs of choking or hitting a more solid object than they can cut. My nose is sensitive to the smells of the cut grass, the hot engine and monitoring for signs of unburned fuel or burning wood. I am constantly watching my line as I guide the tractor through the uncut weeds and driving as close as possible to the trees to cut as much as possible with each pass.
Once I have finished mowing, the next challenge is to get the tractor back up the steep hill to the barn. I always have to make sure I have left enough fuel because the steep grade allows the fuel to move to the back of the tank and away from the outlet in the middle. And, I sure don’t want to run out of fuel part way up the hill.
In order to cross the creek, I have to drive down into the creek and drive downstream a bit to a less steep place to come out and the return along the creek bank to the trail up the hill. I have to set the bush hog at just the right level so that it does not drag the ground but rolls on the rear wheel. If it is too low it will drag too much to climb the hill. If it is too high, the front wheels will come off the ground making it hard to steer.
As, I open the throttle and head up the hill, I have to resist the urge to lean forward as if somehow my weight shift will help the tractor go up the hill. Once safely at the top, I can close the throttle to the normal position and drive back to the barn.
I shut of the ignition and lower the bush hog slightly so that it is low enough to cover the blades but still has some pressure o the hydraulics. This seems to help the hydraulic system come back to life quicker next time the tractor is used. I use my stored screwdriver to close off the fuel cock in the bottom on the tank.
As I listen to the cutter blades slowing to a stop, I can once again begin to think about things outside the mowing experience. I make a pass around the tractor to make sure all the parts are still in place and there are no new oil or hydraulic leaks. Time on the tractor is one of complete focus almost the point of overload. I love the experience and find it very refreshing.
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