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Lawnmowing without a lawnmower

Column by Hal Walter

Mountain Life – August 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

I used to work the night shift at a daily newspaper that did not have a telephone-answering device, and whenever there was a major boxing bout it was routine for the sports editor to get a late-evening call from a fellow who always asked, “Who beat the fight?” It became a regular joke in the newsroom.

So when Mike Tyson did his Alferd Packer routine on Evander Holyfield, it was all I could do to refrain from picking up the phone, calling that newspaper’s sports department, and asking the obvious question.

Who bit the fight?

This particular mid-summer day had already been chewing on me anyway because I had done the every-other-year chore of mowing my alleged lawn. A former owner of this ranchero had the wisdom to plant some sorry sod in front of the house, between the mud slide we call a driveway and the front stoop. Some summers it actually grows — a lot. I don’t encourage this with extra water or fertilizer, because if I really wanted a lawn I’d live in a city and waste agua-nonfria there. And with neighbors’ wells going drier than a Mormon bachelor party, I think it prudent to save water for more important purposes. Warding off simple dehydration comes to mind.

So in years when we have rain, I watch this little plot of vegetation go crazy. Other years I let my burros graze the spring shoots, then watch the sun burn the crisply cropped greens to a brownish bristle.

That treatment keeps it short until wintertime when the wind generally rips the rest of it out by the roots.

I use the word “chewing” to describe lawn care because when the burros won’t or can’t eat it down, I mow my lawn with a Weed Eater. It’s quite fitting that I use a Weed Eater for this task — not only is this turf rather small in terms of area, it’s composed almost entirely of weeds, some of the loco variety.

This year the crop of dandelions was bountiful enough to make me wonder if I could apply for some sort of farm subsidy in drier years. I like dandelions, the most maligned plant in this country, and I cultivate them the way most folks pamper their lawns. People in cities are required by law to eradicate these tender little greens. I’m guessing that when surrounding landowners get their houses built we can expect similar ordinances in our neighborhood, in addition to laws requiring the removal of diseased trees and the wearing of clothing while operating yard equipment.

My 10-year-old Weed Eater croaked a horrific, noisy death that left the smell of burning wires wafting on the mountain breeze. It was a piece of baling twine that caused the meltdown. So I went looking for another device. I started thinking that perhaps I should cast around for a push lawn mower instead of a new Weed Eater. But I was also open-minded to the idea of a propane flame-thrower, with the idea that perhaps this tool might lengthen the period between lawn manicures.

The newest business structure in the Westcliffe/Silver Cliff Clusterplex is a four-bay garage, located just across the highway from the new pizza place on the east end. Like most folks in the area, I watched with curiosity as the walls went up with four garage-door-size spaces across the front of the building. It’s gotta be some sort of quick-lube type of outfit, I thought. What a great business idea. Some smart entrepreneur knows that people who live here burn up a lot of oil making their individual long-distance quests for money and fresh produce.

But I was wrong about the nature of this new business.

The place opened up as a permanent garage sale with four bays of new and used merchandise. Since I was in the market for used lawn-care equipment, I dropped by to check things out on the 40-mile roundtrip to the landfill one morning. What I found there was that some smart businessperson does have a firm understanding of, and a good deal of faith in, the tastes of local residents and tourists. There was no push mower or flame-torch for sale, but I was advised to check back because the inventory changes daily.

I decided instead to burn some oil, and ended up at a huge hardware warehouse in Pueblo, where in summertime the only thing hotter than the good Mexican food there is the outside temperature. I looked over the various options. They had lawn mowers ranging from the $1,000 riding tractors to the plebeian push mower with clippings-catcher for under $100.

The thing that struck me was that for the price of a push mower I could almost buy something with actual internal combustion.

I left with a new electric Weed Eater for about $30.

These machines have improved greatly over the last ten years. I paced off the little lawn, swinging the Weed Eater slowly back and forth, raising clouds of grasshoppers, dandelion seeds and ladybird beetles, flinging odd pebbles and discarded metallic objects willy-nilly, and dyeing my shoes chlorophyll green.

There’s something about power tools. When you finish the job, there’s the tendency to hoist the Weed Eater over your head, Tim Allen-style, and grunt so loudly as to prompt neighbors to call in reports of possible domestic violence. This type of behavior is likely to spur a movement for new laws preventing the sale of power tools to people convicted of misdemeanor counts of disturbing the peace. Especially when you consider that some of the newer cordless drills are concealable.

Since I’d put in what I consider to be a longish day of lawn care — about 20 minutes — and had been suffering from the annual mid-June pine-pollen-induced sinus infection, I decided to quietly decline the local French chef’s invitation to watch the big fight which he had purchased through his satellite dish. But when he noticed that I was not in attendance, he called and forced the issue with his strong Parisian accent.

“I do not care what is the matter with you. I throw a party once every 10 years. You must come or I will be insulted. Seriously, Hal … I am not joking.”

So that’s how I came to see, after chewing on my puny, weedy lawn with a $30 Weed Eater, a millionaire felon bite the ear of a millionaire fundamentalist. What’s the big deal? In other sports, like football, basketball or even baseball, when a player feels fouled, he sometimes takes a swing. In hockey it’s often with a stick. It creates an interesting dilemma for an athlete whose sport is taking swings in a boxing ring. What to do? Well, I can tell you this, biting will definitely get people’s attention.

But the chef did not see it this way at all. This “bum” had put the bite on his party and he likened it to a tennis player throwing a racket at his opponent. “I am embarrassed,” he kept saying with dismay as the guests, most of them in shock, filed out the door.

But I assured him that the outcome of the fight was not something for which he was responsible, nor was it something over which he had any control whatsoever. And for those reasons, he should not be overly concerned. “It’s just the way it is,” I told him in plain American.

And with those incredibly profound words still on my lips, I stumbled out into the dark, moonless night with the rest of the guests and searched for my truck in the unpaved driveway of this mountain home where there were no yard lights, and indeed, no lawn.

Free-lance writer and Westcliffe-area resident Hal Walter has been accused of talking people’s ears off, but his bite is really no worse than his bark.