Sherman, set the WABAC machine to 1999.
While driving my White/GMC rig for Dick Simon Trucking in the winter of that year, I found myself hauling a trailer load of bulk cheese picked up in Boise, Idaho.
Green Bay, Wisconsin, by way of Illinois. The load of cheese I had on board was headed for the big Kraft Foods processing plant in mid Illinois near Champagne-Urbana, and from there I was going to be hauling bulk Kraft Cheese straight up the pipe to Green Bay.
Now, the first reason this run is still memorable was the sheer amusement in hauling cheese INTO Wisconsin, a state that prides itself on the awesomeness of it’s Wisconsin Cheeses.
Apparently, the secret ingredient in Wisconsin Cheese is… Idaho dairy?
Just kidding, just kidding. Whether or not Kraft Cheese counts as actual cheese is open to debate.
Okay, so Boise, Idaho with a load of cheese, headed eastbound for Illinois, in the dead of winter.
These days, you can use Google Maps to give you a least-mileage set of directions or a least time, and have two different results based on average posted highway speed, number of lanes, number of stop signs or street lights, even construction, all that kind of thing.
Back then, the internet was in fledgling days. We might have had satellite communications with dispatch via a text based Qualcomm keyboard, but for route planning, you had a paper map in your cabin, and you plotted your routes based on your own experience with the terrain, the roads, and the latest construction reports you collected as you went.
The name of the game is making your scheduled delivery and pickup times, having spent the least amount of money on fuel and wear-and-tear on your vehicle.
That means, whenever possible, going for the least mileage, except where a similar route might bypass lots of stop-and-go driving conditions. Taking a 15 mile detour can be far more cost effective in both time and fuel if it allows you to use nonstop freeway miles rather than going down the heart of a city full of stop signs and traffic lights.
In this case, I had a minor dilemma.
On the one hand, I had a very solid route through wide open freeway that I could take, following I-86 East to I-84 South to Salt Lake City, and then East on I-80 barreling right along. Pros; all interstate multi-lane, with dedicated road clearing equipment for snow. Cons? Not exactly the most direct route, and lots of mountain climbing.
On the other hand, I had a least-mileage route I could take over the Idaho/Wyoming border, following I-86 to I-15 South, and then taking US route 30 cutting across the diagonal. Pros? A far more direct route. Cons? Single lane roads with questionable conditions through back country cowtowns miles from support… and if stuck in a snowdrift, a Donner Party/Deliverence scenario was not only plausible, but likely.
Even so. It wasn’t quite a no brainer. I had no personal knowledge of road conditions on the US-30 route. I’d never traveled that way before. And the weather was threatening storms. Severe winter storms. Sure, those storms weren’t really due until the next full day, but… this is a weather service prediction, I’m listening to. Which means, if they say snow tomorrow, expect the blizzard tonight. Or no snow at all.
Or a full lunar eclipse with rain of frogs, rain of frogs, back to you, Phil.
In the end, I decided to hedge my bets. I took I-86 East, passed the I-84 S turnoff and just kept on trucking East to Pocatello. From there, I could hole up in a truck stop for a few minutes, get some scoop on the conditions.
In Pocatello, the word was good. Truckers headed West coming through US-30 said the roads were clear and, best of all, there was no traffic because everyone was afraid of the impending storm. In that kind of coutry, in winter, storms aren’t idle bullshit. You take that stuff seriously when all that stands between you and hypothermia is the propane tank you (hopefully) got filled last week.
Truckers LOVE clear roads and chicken motorists. Little bastards in bimbo boxes drive around trucks like you’re big stationary islands with retrograde thrusters rather than multi-ton engines of mass, momentum and kinetic destruction.
Guess what? If you cut in front of a truck into that itty-bitty little one-car-length space right in front of his bumper and then slam your brakes on, the truck behind you does NOT fire all thrusters in reverse to stop on a dime. Welcome to Splatville, population:YOU.
While I was getting coffee and munchies for the road, some of the other truckers who had had the same idea I did, including another Dick Simon driver (coincidentally the driver that had run with me during my one month training qualification) all decided to take the same shortcut to I-80, and we decided to convoy over the route together.
It’s not that far as the crow flies, but some of it is pretty flat, some of it is very curvy, there ARE hills, and it’s all very remote. we’d be driving all night, hands wet on the wheel… oh, [ahem] sorry, and that big old snowstorm was looming out there… somewhere.
But what the hey, traveling together in a convoy, chatting on the CB, it all helps keep you awake. Right?
We headed on out, and by the time we left, the sun was setting. The colors were turning, and the world was putting it’s blinds up for the night. Before long, it was dark, the air was still, and it began to feel like a good night to drive for 8 hours straight.
Sometimes, maybe it’s just me, the road just seems to get in your blood, and nothing else feels as good as driving all night, letting the miles pass for hours on end. Letting the miles bleed out of you, and letting a nice relaxing calm seep in.
This felt like it was going to be one of those magical nights.
And it was.
We headed south out of Pocatello, a string of semis headed for the open road.
Traffic was light as we drilled a corridor into the wind. Before long, we left the interstate to blast onto the US-30 turnoff, with nothing standing between us and I-80 except for a few spots on the map that probablyweren’t big enough for a gas station, and hundreds of miles of open prairie and curvy canyons.
And a maybe kinda not really gonna happen tonight snowstorm.
An hour into the run, mild rising elevation most of the way, and the sky abrubtly turned black. The stars went away, and all there was to see were the tail lights of the truck in front, and a chill seepiong through the windo cracks.
Minutes later, the snow hit. Hard.
It came out of nowhere, in the back of beyond where radio signals aren’t to be found, and the storm that was supposed to hit the next day showed up early, snapping it’s fingers like Sinatra, impatient to get the show on the road.
Visibility plummeted along with the temperature. The road was a single lane both ways, no median, with steep shoulders. Nowhere to turn, nothing to break the wind howling across flatland, and no choice but to keep going and pray we could barrel on through the storm before the roads iced up so bad we couldn’t keep traction against the sideways wind.
It felt like a snowy, dry version of driving through high hurricane conditions, something I’ve done before during Hurricane Hugo while stationed in South Carolina.
The wind was fierce, driving across the lane of travel, the snow came thick and fast, but it didn’t stick to anything like wet muck would have done, it was like driving through white sugar sand. Everybody tightened up until we were nose to butt, headlight to taillight all the way down the line, letting the lead truck cut a tunnel into the wind that we all rushed in to fill, cutting down drastically on the turbulance we all had to endure.
We were still doing over 45 mph, there were over 15 trucks in the convoy at this point, and you could tell from the CB chatter that everybody was getting really tense. The situation was not good, and getting worse by the minute. The weather conditions could go either way, lighten up or spin into a blizzard, and we were in the middle of nowhere.
As the night wore on, we rotated who pulled lead truck duty, but no matter who was in the lead, nobody had much room to relax. The worst of the tension came from being so damn close to the truck ahead, as the slightest problem for one truck up the line could easily result in a series of bumper to bumper collisions through the entire pack. But to split apart and increase the gap between trucks meant each truck would suffer the full force of the crosswinds, and for the trucks running mostly empty it was getting hard enough to throw them a full lane across sideways when the gusts hit.
We traveled like this for quite some time. There was very little chatter on the CBs. After a bit, with mile after mile of white tunnel and tail lights burning into our eyes, the night seemed to get all wrapped up, to tighten up into kind of a cocoon of stillness.
There came this point in the worst of the storm, when everything was just a solid blanket of white, and we were riding in the wind tunnel formed by the previous trucks’ passage, that even though we were barrelling along the highway, at scary speeds, it felt almost as if we were standing still. As if the engine noise, and the hum of the tires, all of it didn’t matter; all was still and calm.
It was a very dangerous illusion. The atmosphere was calm… almost hypnotic, and it could be very easy to lose concentration.
As in; “Oooh, the heater is so warm and cuddly! Is it sleepy time now? I think it could be!”
Me, I had my window cracked a good bit to let the howling cold in, which just barely counteracted the warmth and hypnotic effects of the whiteout.
We were maybe 4 hours into the run when suddenly, the stillness was broken by shouts, screaming and chaos squealing from the CB speaker.
I began a gentle braking immediately, oh so damn gently, in the hopes I wasn’t going to get rear ended, looking left and right and gauging the position of the truck in front of me, desperate to try and guess which way he’d swerve, because if he slammed his brakes down, whichever way he went, I was damned well headed for the other lane.
If he took his half down the middle? Well, I guess I’d just be screwed, now wouldn’t I? Thems the breaks in Naval Air… they call ‘em air brakes. And boy, did I wish I had some right then.
Almost immediately the idiot in front of me did slam his brakes on, and the trailer in my front grill began fishtailing from side to side, violently, as he swerved this and way and that, like a complete bloody moron, and my swearing filled the cab of my truck as I manuevered and downshifted, jake brakes punding like a jackhammer, fear gripping my throat. I could just SEE going off the side in this storm and being dug out sometime in February, still clutching the wheel with a pissed off (yet cynical) look on my frozen face.
My truck finally eased to a stop, as did all the others. The shouting and yelling was still coming through the CB speaker, but nothing could be made out in the babble.
Occassionally, though, the word explosion could be made out.
What fresh hell is this, then?
I left the truck in idle so the heater and defrosters would blow, and hopped down into the snow to find out what the HELL was going on.
I trudged up the road, the wind and snow just miserable. I was in jeans and a lightweight Marine Corps jacket, I wasn’t dressed for this shit. Still, an explosion… hey, that’s something I’d like to see. If there’s gonna be an explosion in this story, by God I want to be able to say I saw the thing burn to the ground later, know what I mean?
As I head up the road, all the other trucks’ cabs are popping open, and truckers in various states of all kinds of pissed off descend to join me. Each of us eyed the others as the truckers joined the growing mob, as if to ask each addition, “Were you the one responsible for this cluster fuck? No? Well, all right then. It wasn’t me neither, so let’s go find the bastard together.”
We kept going up the line, and we were almost to it when somebody fired up a multi-cell maglite, and speared the side of a tractor with the beam.
My heart sank in my chest as I saw the truck all the attention was on, sure as shit, was the other Dick Simon truck.
As we got closer, we could clearly hear the yelling, and while the words were still indistinct, the tone was an unmistakeable mixture of scared and pissed off.
We all got up there next to his cab, and the wide open door. His truck had jacknifed, his trailer mostly off the road on the right side and a bit twisted on the fifth wheel, but he was riding empty so he could power that back on the road no problem…
That is, if he was able to reclaim the cab of his truck from the terrorist that had seized power and seceded the truck rather dramatically from the convoy union.
My fellow skunk truck driver (the logo of Dick Simon Trucking back then was a big fat skunk holding two crossed flags – a rebel flag and a skull and crossbones. Please, dear god, don’t ask. Wait, I’ve got a picture of a skunk truck toy, hold on.)
Anyway, as I was saying, my fellow skunk truck driver, this real conservative, straight-laced older (50′s) married black guy with a rather stern demeanor and almost no sense of humor whatsoever (Hey, I shared living out of the cab of a truck with the guy for a month, I visited his house several times in Murray, Utah, and while he was a great guy, I’m here to tell you – no sense of humor whatsofreakingever) is standing outside the cab of his truck, staring inside the truck, white as a ghost and shaking like a leaf.
He has no jacket on, but that’s not why he’s shaking. He’s shaking ’cause he’s had the shit literally scared out of him.
Inside teh cab of the truck, the terrorist is screaming demands at the top of his lungs. The wind is howling, and snow is streaming into the cab through the massive hole blown through the windshield.
Finally, someone reached in and grabbed the little terrorist, risking serious bodily injury from the razor sharp blades he wielded, and tossed him out of the cab, where he flailed around shrieking in anger on the blacktop, before taking off like his tail was on fire into the storm.
So, here’s what apparently happened. Bear with me as I reenact the scene from within the cab of his truck.
We’re barrelling down the highway, through a calm tunnel of swirling snow, the trailer of the truck ahead and it’s tail lights all that can really be seen while floating serenely in a sea of white.
Floating along… floating… floating….
The windshield on the passenger side of the truck EXPLODES in, shower safety glass fragments everywhere including right in your face, you brake in a dead panic and drop back from the truck ahead, losing the windbreak and the full force of the storm suddenly releases it’s hidden fury, sending driving snow and furious wind, heightened by your trucks’ forward speed, straight into your suddenly freezing cab.
But that’s not what’s really got your attention, because in the midst of all this chaos, a body has launched itself through the windshield into your car, and is now sitting in your passenger seat next to you, screaming and flailing and flashing it’s razor sharp knives and howling it’s rage and pain into your ear.
As your many years of training take over, even in your panic, you bring your wildly fishtailing semi under control before you flip it right of the road, get the damn thing shuddering to a halt, shut it down and lock the brakes, and then fling your door open in a panic, anything to get the hell out of that truck!
Then you stand there on the pavement, shaking and sweating and freezing all at once, and stare into the cab of your truck, your home, your very livelihood, still gripped in adrenaline and terror, and wonder how in the hell you’re going to get that owl out of there without getting killed.
Dude is driving right along in the middle of a whiteout, and this owl came cruising on by, doing owl things, thinking owl thoughts, came in between two trucks in a convoy, and BLAM! right through the windshield.
That was one righteously pissed off owl, man.
I can’t remember who did it, but somebody with heavy leather gloves reached on in there and grabbed that pissed off whirlwind of feathers and talons and beak, and just yanked it right on out of the truck to land on the road with a plop.
Owl kinda settled down once it was out of the truck, checked it’s six, and poof! Instant Casper.
Once we all did our “there there, it’s all right, no really, man that must have sucked” routine, we helped tape some cardboard over the shattered remains of his windshield, and then, hey… off we went back into the storm.
By the time we got to I-80, he was one frozen block of ice. I mean, the cardboard may have cut out some of the worst of the snow, but get real… it was cold in there.
But when he got out of the truck at the end of the run, he was still shaking, and it wasn’t from cold. I never did see him stop shaking, but of course I had to keep on going. I heard what finally happened, though. He quit trucking later that same week. He just sat out there with his truck at a dinky little truck stop for a few days trying to get up the nerve to get back in, and finally gave up. He got a ride back with another trucker, and yet a third trucker had to deadhead on out as a passenger to drive the rig back to Salt Lake City to get it to the yard.
Moral of the story…
Don’t mess with no freaking owls.
Take a full sized rig DOWN, man. No problem.