A Story From the Road

Discussion in 'Writing' started by Oldguy, Dec 25, 2012.

  1. Oldguy

    Oldguy Senior Member

    Sep 25, 2012
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    It's snowing here in North Texas tonight...and sticking too! Every time it does that, I'm once again thankful that I'm no longer out there on the road.

    You see, I spent 30 years driving a big rig over the highway's and byway's of the United States, Canada and parts of northern Mexico. I can't count the number of days and nights I fought winter weather, slipping and sliding through the Rockies or across the Great Plains, nor relate how much I came to loathe it before I was able to park the truck for good.

    But, when it snows here, my mind always goes back to one particular night. It must have been in the mid to late 80's when I was driving for a private carrier out of Dallas,Texas. Our business was rubber, retread and custom mix stuff, and we hauled it all over the country. The company had several plants in the US and Canada and we'd haul from one to the other and make multiple stops at our retail or wholesale customers wherever they were.

    This particular night, I was running team with a guy named Jim Willis. We were burdened with a load of "slab" rubber for our plant in Portland, OR. We were to switch trailers on a Sunday night, then make a "peddle" run down through California, making multiple stops from Crescent City to Bakersfield. We'd then load something back to Dallas, probably produce, and go home.

    I didn't know Jim all that well, though we'd worked together briefly back in the 70's at Sherwin-Williams. He was a nice enough guy, a more experienced driver than I and a pretty good hand at the steering wheel, so I could sleep behind him without much worry. Sometimes, trust WAS an issue when running team and that's why I rarely did it. But, this run I consented to take him with me.

    I was driving as we came up through the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. It was snowing and the road was snow covered, but not that bad. I'd seen worse....far worse. There were no traction problems at all between LaGrande and the top of Cabbage Hill, officially known as Immigrant Pass on I-84, and I was just tooling right along while Willis slept. I guess he trusted me too.

    At the top of Cabbage, I geared down, hit the Jake Brake and eased off the hill. Down and around we went, making first a right, then a left, then a right as the lights of Pendleton, OR and Walla-Walla, WA shining in the distance. It was overcast, but the snow had stopped falling, though it was still bitterly cold.

    With the elevation rapidly declining, and snow gone, I figured we were out of the worst of it and would have clear sailing on into Portland. The road was just damp, so as I swung into the final, sweeping left-hand curve at the bottom of the mountain, I eased down onto the throttle and opened 'er up wide.

    By the time we hit the flatlands at the bottom of the hill, we were probably running 90 or 95 mph in a 55 mph speed zone. It's hard to know because the speedometer only went to 85 and the needle was quivering well below that. It didn't matter. The Oregon State Police didn't hang around the bottom of Cabbage all that much. They'd probably be farther along around Pendleton, but they gave drivers a break coming off the mountain and didn't wait for us at the bottom of the hill where they could probably catch us all for a good speeding ticket. God Bless 'em!

    Just as I straightened out, two things happened at once. Willis rolled out of the sleeper in his underwear and I noticed what looked to be snow between the ruts of both lanes. It was just a fine, white trail between the tire marks and about the same color as Jim's thighty-whitey's.

    He lit a cigarette and said something. I don't remember what. But, I DO remember that I said, "Looks like we might be picking up a little snow here."

    To which he replied, "Yeah. Or BLACK ICE."

    Before I could react or even process that suggestion, he reached over to the dash and flipped on the fog lights. They were down low, in the bumper, and gave a much better view of the road surface than the headlights.

    He was right! We were running 90-95 mph on a sheet of pure ice! Why hadn't I considered that!?

    Acting on instinct, I got off the throttle immediately. As soon as I did, the rear end of the drive axle began to slip out to the right, taking the trailer with it. We were about to jackknife at an un-Godly speed, so I eased back down on the peddle and pulled it back straight. Every time I tried to back off our speed, the jackknife began again, so I had to just keep giving it more throttle to stay out of the ditch.

    From where we were to the US Hwy-395 underpass south of Pendleton, it's downhill. A gentle slope, but still downhill. In short order, we were running well over 100 mph and I couldn't do anything about it! Soon, we would reach the limit of the engine's capability and I couldn't make it go any faster. What then?

    Gradually, we began to slip to the left. Out of the right lane, up to the center stripe, across that, into the left lane and more. I was holding the steering wheel with only both pinky fingers out of fear that I'd seize up and hurl us into oblivion. There was no slowing down and in a moment, I wouldn't be able to go any faster!

    As we crossed over 395, I was right up against the left guardrail...and I mean RIGHT UP AGAINST IT! Inches separated us from a violent death! It hurled by in a blur and I was sweating that cold, hard, stinky sweat of imminent death!

    To his credit, Willis just sat there calmly smoking his Winston and never said a word. Hell, he didn't even MOVE! I can't to this day say whether he was unaware of what was going on, fearless or just scared shitless.

    I managed to keep us out of the median as we hurtled down to the short flat stretch beside the nut house/prison/hospital/whatever the hell it is there. I don't know how fast we were going by then, but it was WAY beyond the maximum speed of that truck, which was about 110. The speedometer needle was welded to the bottom the gauge and God alone knows what the RPM was. I was afraid to look.

    Finally, against all the odds, we started to go uphill again. I let gravity take its toll and we slowed down and down and down..until I could actually drive the truck again...instead of just ride it. Shaking like a Baptist preacher in a cathouse, I stopped at the Woodpecker Truck Stop to collect my nerves.

    Willis went to bed.

    From there on to where we dropped off the table-land down to the level of the Columbia River at Arlington, OR was the slickest road I ever saw....until Arkansas a few years later when I literally jumped out of the truck to keep from riding it into the ditch.

    But...that's a story for another time.
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  2. Mr. H.

    Mr. H. Diamond Member

    Aug 19, 2009
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    A warm place with no memory.

    BTW you mis-spelled "tighty".

    Hey- how come you never down-shifted?

    Nice piece.
  3. midcan5

    midcan5 liberal / progressive

    Jun 4, 2007
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    Philly, PA
    Oldguy, great piece.


    To this day I hate a phone ring. The mind reacts alone. In days past late night trouble meant driving. Automation and remote access didn't exist. One rainy evening, ring, sure, I can go in. One AM, cold, rainy but mostly empty I raced to fix a broken machine. Roosevelt Boulevard is lined with lights but the expressway to the city is a freeway. Around South street the road narrows close to the Schuylkill and was puddled. Racing past a tractor trailer a quarter mile back, the car suddenly hydroplanes and control becomes a matter of reflex. I have been in two similar situations and they last longer than they last. I thought death close as I watched the truck lights coming with nowhere to go. The car finally righted and a late night call changed meaning.
    Last edited: Dec 26, 2012

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