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- Tales of Adventure
I started driving for an environmental service company in late December, 1998. The job involved hauling hazardous waste from the company yard in Otay Mesa, CA, to registered treatment facilities across the United States. On my initial run, I dragged a load of Class 3 flammable liquids to a facility in Kingsville, MO, just southeast of Kansas City. The trip was uneventful until I crossed the Missouri line and headed north on US71.
As I approached my destination, weather conditions deteriorated, and I was soon crawling over slick icy roads littered with wrecks and abandoned vehicles. The road surfaces consisted of "skating rink material"---thick glassy ice more suitable for a game of hockey rather than the safe transportation of hazardous waste. It was the worst possible scenario for a driver hauling flammable liquids in an unfamiliar truck. Fortunately, liquids are heavy and I was pushing 80,000 lbs. gross; it is always better to be heavily loaded in icy conditions, instead of slithering from side to side with an empty wagon.
Naturally, the treatment facility was tucked back in the woods; to get there, I had to roll down a glassy, curving, high-crowned, two-lane blacktop road which hadn't seen a plow in days. It was the most challenging stretch of road I had yet driven in my newly-assigned truck, and though I proceeded with great caution, the rig and I were all over the icy pavement. Luckily, there was no other traffic on this particular road at the time, and I gently rolled to a halt at the receiver's gate.
I sat for a moment behind the wheel, mentally decompressing, supremely thankful that I hadn't dumped the load in a ditch or killed a wagonload of kids in an ice-related wreck. My eyes closed and I slumped forward to rest my head on the wheel, only to be startled by a sharp rapping on my door: in his concern, the security guard had left his cozy heated shack, thinking I was in the throes of some sort of seizure or attack. When my wagon was empty, I simply shut down right there on the property, since the weather had worsened and any attempt at dead-heading (dragging an empty wagon) out from under the storm would have resulted in disaster.
The storm broke the following morning, or sufficiently subsided to allow my departure. On my way out of town, I picked up the Metropolitan Edition of the Kansas City Star, dated December 22, 1998. The headline was somber: "14 DIE ON STATES' SLICK ROADS." Nine in Missouri, five in Kansas, God only knew how many others in neighboring states. This was the human toll levied by the storm. Whenever I recall that trip and my associated trial on that icy road, I break out that edition of The Star and show it to my friends, so they might better understand the danger involved in transport over slick icy roads.
On my very next run out of San Diego, I dragged a load of Class 9 lead solder waste to a metal recycling facility in Altoona, PA. I made it to Illinois before the weather turned crappy---another storm had hammered the region and the roads were a mess. I shut down at the Effingham Petro for the night, in the vain hope that conditions might improve by morning. If anything, conditions had worsened by daylight, so I took my time in the truck stop, eating a leisurely breakfast and soaking in the steaming heat of a 45-minute shower.
I rolled out of the Petro lot under gray and forbidding skies, heading east on I-70 at approximately twenty miles per hour with the power divider engaged (equal power to all drive wheels). Several inches of packed snow had accumulated on the road surface, and there wasn't a single plow or "salt shaker" in sight. As I rolled toward Terre Haute, the snow gradually thinned to ice and I reduced my speed. I had just topped a small rise and started down a slight grade when my CB crackled and a westbound driver hollered:
"Back it down, eastbound!!! You're coming to a dead stop around that bend ahead of you!!!"
To this day, I don't know who that driver was, but I owe him, BIG-TIME, for saving my a$$ on that occasion. The bend in question was over half a mile away. I glanced down at my speedometer---the slight downgrade had pushed my speed back up to twenty miles per hour. Once again, I was heavily loaded, but this time my truck weight worked against me by contributing to my downhill momentum at the precise moment when I desperately needed to bring the rig to a halt. To complicate matters, I was dropping into a valley which presented the worst road surface conditions I had EVER experienced: the opaque packed ice and granular snow on which I had been running was suddenly transformed into a glassy sheet of skating rink material, slick as f___, with a thin layer of meltwater on top to make it even more dangerous.
I tried downshifting to reduce my speed, but the rig obstinately continued to roll at twenty miles per hour. It would never stop in time through downshifting alone---I would have to use my service brakes on ice, an ill-advised and perilous tactic in these circumstances. Thankfully, no other vehicles were near (I deliberately "ride the gap" between clusters of traffic as a safety measure, regardless of weather conditions), for the slightest brake application caused the rig to immediately jackknife at a 45-degree angle. My tractor was in the hammer lane and the a$$ end of my trailer was out on the right shoulder, with the rig straddling the eastbound lanes, inexorably sliding toward the unseen traffic stopped around the bend ahead of me...
The second I released the brake pedal, the rig straightened, with my speedometer showing a barely noticeable reduction in speed. I gently pressed the brake pedal and the rig again jackknifed, sliding steadily downgrade at a 45-degree angle across both lanes and the right shoulder. This time, when I released the pedal, I managed to drop a gear as the rig straightened, which in turn slowed my speed to fifteen miles per hour. Still way too fast, with no let-up in the grade and the bend less than a quarter-mile away. The rig felt like a runaway train, heavy and unstoppable, rolling toward disaster with a stubborn will of its own.
With my adrenaline soaring, I resumed my braking and downshifting sequence in an effort to check the rig's progress... brake, jackknife, straighten the rig, brake, jackknife, straighten the rig and drop a gear... by alternately braking, jackknifing, and downshifting, I brought the truck down to five miles per hour as I entered the bend. No braking was possible in the turn: the stubborn bitch would have slid directly off the road in a heartbeat. As I rounded the bend, I saw a line of trucks sitting in staggered formation aproximately one-eighth of a mile ahead... it was showtime.
I had managed to reduce my speed but the rig was still steadily rolling toward the last truck in line, and I was assailed by a brief yet intense wave of apprehension and despair... the rig could not be safely stopped within the remaining distance. Fortunately, the downgrade leveled out at this point, and I continued my braking sequence in an automatic last-ditch effort to avoid a collision. Finally, with the a$$ end of a trailer looming two hundred feet away, I tapped my brake pedal for the last time. In the words of Elvis, it was "now or never"---I would bring the rig to a halt, slam into the truck ahead of me, wind up stuck in the f____g median, or all of the above...
Consistent to the end, the rig jackknifed and I braced myself for impact as I slowly slid forward. Fifty feet. Forty. Thirty. Twenty. Glancing at my mirror, I saw the trailer begin to straighten. The truck ahead of me was in the right or granny lane; my tractor was in the hammer lane, with my trailer angled toward the right shoulder. Ever so slowly, as if mocking me and my lack of faith, my trailer straightened as I slid alongside the last truck in line, clearing the left rear corner of that truck by what looked to be six or seven inches. With my foot still on the brake pedal, I came to a stop with my cab next to the landing gear of the other trailer. It was nothing short of miraculous.
The driver next to me must not have witnessed my approach; perhaps he dove into his sleeper to grab a soda or make a sandwich while waiting for the road to clear. When I set my parking brakes, he must have been startled by the noise. Alarmed by my sudden proximity, he put his truck in gear and inched forward to put some distance between us. As I breathed a deep sigh of relief, the entire staggered formation of trucks slowly began to tighten up ahead of me. While I waited, I watched my mirrors to insure that the next driver to run up on this icy clusterf#% didn't slam into my truck, as I had so narrowly avoided doing.
Once I was comfortably established in formation with trucks to the front and rear, a new problem arose. I was stationary, with all parking brakes set, but I could not seem to shake a nagging perception of motion. Opening my door, I leaned over and studied the icy surface beneath my tractor. Millimeter by millimeter, in barely perceptible fashion, my entire heavily-loaded truck was sliding SIDEWAYS off the crown of the road. This was an alarming development: if I slid too far, I would get mired in the slushy crap that lined the sloping shoulder and median.
I immediately released my parking brakes and pulled up until my rig straddled the crown of the road. When the road eventually reopened to eastbound traffic, I continued to straddle the crown while rolling forward at five miles per hour. Four hours after leaving Effingham, I crossed the Indiana line and drove through Terre Haute. Conditions improved somewhat in Indiana, and I made it to the State Line Petro (on the Hoosier/Buckeye line) as darkness fell. My grand tally for the day: a lousy 218 miles. Dogged by the storm, I defiantly walked across the Buckeye line to buy a twelve-pack of beer (no ice required), then returned and proceeded to get drunk. The beers actually grew colder when I left them on the catwalk of my tractor---one positive aspect of drinking in subfreezing temperatures.
In the morning, rumors of road closure flew over the CB. No eastbound drivers wanted to leave the truck stop, since I-70 was reportedly shut down due to---what else?---crappy weather. I waited for an hour, then I decided to roll out and verify the rumors. The road was not in optimal condition, but it was wide open and I started rolling east. There was a pileup on the westbound side at the ten yardstick in the Buckeye, which created a parking lot for westbound drivers but had no effect upon what little traffic was traveling in my direction. Salt shakers were out in force in the Buckeye, and I made steady progress toward the PA line.
Once in the Keystone, I experienced renewed tension as I made my way to Altoona. The curves on the big road were bad enough, but those steep skinny roads were downright dangerous when covered with snow and ice. Anybody who has driven US22 in winter knows EXACTLY what I mean... narrow lanes with oncoming truck traffic lead up and down hills, steep as f___, while bad weather exponentially increases the potential for a fatal head-on collision. I was in a sorry state by the time I rolled into Altoona and located the receiver. Parking the rig for the night, I gratefully climbed into my sleeper with the heater cranked and slept the sleep of the dead.
The storm broke before I began my return trip to San Diego (we used to dead-head back with an empty wagon in those days). As I rolled westward out of Pennsylvania, I was shocked to see how many unrecovered vehicles still lay in the ditches. Not only four-wheelers, but big trucks as well, most upright but some on their sides and others upside-down. Salt shakers had been working night and day, and, although there was snow on the ground, I was running on dry roads under clear but cold blue skies. The wreckers in each state had simply been swamped with calls, which is why a dozen big trucks still lay unrecovered, and only the insurance companies knew how many four-wheelers were strewn across the countryside.
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