Saturday, January 31, 2009
A NICE WINTER DRIVE
Have you ever done anything that made you feel like a total idiot? Of course you have -- we all have, at one time or the other, if we're honest about it. Nobody, however, does things that have them feeling like prize boobs more often than truckers. And the cause of these feelings of stupidity usually center around weather. Crappy, nasty, distasteful weather to be exact. I mean, who else but a truck driver would deliberately head into areas where there are hurricanes, tornadoes, 70 mph gusting winds, snow, freezing rain, sleet, and ice, when every single instinct in their bodies are loudly urging them to about-face quickly and run hard in the opposite direction? At least that's what my instincts tell me in those situations.
But when you drive a truck, operating in any and every kind of weather is a job requirement. The customers in those afflicted areas need their stuff and they're paying you, directly or indirectly, to get it to them, weather conditions be damned. So, you load up and head up the road, where the storm clouds lurk on the horizon, feeling like you need your head examined for ever taking a job that forces you to do such idiotic things. This is even more evidence to support my long-held contention that you don't have to be crazy to drive a truck for a living -- but it sure does help!
I loaded out on Tuesday, after sitting out Monday night. My load picked up in Greeneville, TN and once again I would head to Joliet, IL, where I had oh so recently survived a frozen-up truck in arctic-like temperatures. Well, at least the weather was a little warmer up there as of last week, but they were predicting freezing rain and sleet in Kentucky, which would begin almost as soon as I hit the state line, or so they said. Needless to say, I was NOT looking forward to those prospects at all! Would I even GET where I was supposed to go? I didn't know, but in order to earn my next paycheck, I had to try. And it didn't help in the least that my load, which was scheduled to be ready at 1 P.M., CST, wasn't loaded in my trailer till almost 6, delaying me another five hours and giving the icy rain that much more time to coincide with MY schedule! Finally, I was loaded and headed back to K-Town, and I-75, to begin my northward trek.
Well, they were wrong about the state line part of the forecast, I soon found out. It was mild, in the 40's, all the way up to London, Kentucky, where I took a five-hour nap before moving on again. It was the only chance I'd get, knowing that the nastier the weather got, the less likely it was that I'd find any space to stop later on, since many truckers who don't have next-day deliveries pull off the road and take up all the space in rest areas and truck stops, cramming their trucks into the facilities like sardines in a can. But I had a dual strategy, part one being the needed nap and part two being that my stopping *might* just buy time enough for the salt crews to get out and begin treating the roads before I moved on, thus giving me a safer surface to travel on. And it worked, up to a point.
When I resumed my journey, me and most of the other trucks cruised up the Big Road at a nice pace between 55 and 60 most of the time. The salt shakers were out and there was just water on the road surface, for the most part. One indicator that it's starting to ice is when you see a lack of spray kicked up by the tires of trucks that pass you, or are in front of you. You can also look in your mirror and see your own "rooster tail" behind you in well-lighted areas. That spray means that it's pretty much just water and isn't any more slippery than a heavy rain. It's when you don't see the spray, or rooster tails, that you have potential problems brewing. Of course, by then you can usually feel the greasy-like slipperiness of ice in the seat of your pants as well. You know the quivery, loose-as-a-goose feeling if you've ever driven on it before. You ease out of the throttle gently and don't dare touch the brake pedal until you're over the icy patch. Hold it straight in the road and if you just have to turn the wheel, you do so very slowly and carefully. But I didn't have that feeling once, all the way into Lexington, through Frankfort and on out past Shelbyville.
I stopped to fuel in Simpsonville and the lot was solid ice. Obviously the state salt crews weren't bothering with truckstop parking lots on that early Wednesday morning. That was the most "fun" I've had fueling in years. It was all I could do to stand up at all. I managed to get a death grip around the card reader machine in order to stand steady long enough to run my fuel card and Pilot Driver Payback card. Then I had to let go and half-walk, half-skate back the the cab door, to get my work gloves. I managed that, and managed to get behind the sleeper and get the fuel cap off. Now for the hose. The motion of pulling the pump nozzle from the pump sent me sliding backward. I banged up against the side of the sleeper. I slid my way back around to the tank, stuck the nozzle into the tank's bung, squeezed the "fill" lever -- and discovered that some dumbass driver had forgotten to turn the pump on! Clicked the lever into the "fast fill" position and began my journey back to the pump again. It was like climbing Mount Everest, but I finally made it and slapped the pump's handle to the "on" position.
Now for the passenger side. It was equally fun, but I managed to get the satellite pump going just as the nozzle on the driver's side clicked off. It could -- and did -- wait until I finished up on the passenger side. Check the oil?? Ha-ha-ha!! That was a JOKE! Let's just hope it wasn't critically low -- I wasn't about to push my luck that far! I managed to get the nozzle hung back up and started back around to the driver's side, to finish up over there. I did, finally, then looked toward the building and contemplated the vast ice field I'd have to cross in order to go in there and buy some munchies. It was all of 25 yards to the building, but with all that ice, it might as well have been a mile. Forget it. I was ahead on points thus far, so I climbed back in the cab and fired the truck back up. Put it in gear, let the clutch out, and went nowhere. Just spun on the ice. I locked the axles up and tried again. Nada. But it did move in reverse a little bit, so I rocked it backward a few feet, then put it back in first and went forward, out of the fuel island, onto the lot. I slid my way around the lot, dodging a creative flatbed who'd managed to park as much in the damned way as he possibly could, then made the salted road out front once again. A little greasy on the ramp, but I kept it reasonably straight and was back on I-64 in a few seconds.
I got my first dose of the heebie-jeebies in Louisville, on that infamous I-64/I-65 North interchange ramp, which leads one onto the Kennedy Bridge which crosses the Ohio River into Jeffersonville, Indiana. This ramp is the rough equivalent of the locally infamous "widowmaker" ramp in Knoxville, which takes southbound traffic on I-75 onto I-640 East. The only difference is that the Louisville ramp is (A.) narrower and enclosed by concrete walls (B.) has compound curves in it and (C.) is all uphill, elevated above the ground. This means that there's no ground beneath it to insulate it from the cold and that it will get very icy, very quickly. And it was just that on Wednesday morning. You absolutely can not stop on that ramp in those conditions. To do so would mean getting very stuck in a very precarious position, and/or sliding backward down the ramp, which would be decidedlly hazardous to your own health and that of anyone unlucky enough to be behind you on the ramp. Brakes are worthless on ice. Momentum is all you have and you gotta keep it going, no matter how slick it is. I narrowly avoided sliding into the concrete walls of the ramp twice, as I slithered and spun my way up onto the bridge. That bridge, like all bridges, was also hanging in thin air, with no ground insulation beneath it, but crews from both states had been at work and it was just very wet. Once I straightened up again on the bridge, I made my way on into the Hoosier State without incident. "Hey! How about a little salt on that ramp?" I hollered at a salt shaker on the opposite side, although he never heard me at all.
The Indiana suburbs of Louisville were pretty much like the state I'd just left -- wet. But things would change quickly enough. Just twenty miles or so north of Derbytown I started seeing white all around me and in just a few miles distance, the sleet had turned to a wet snow. And they hadn't had time to plow one bit. Well, snow is better than ice, in that you can get traction on it, but the slushy wet crap we had there was as slippery as greased glass and my truck's steering began to get squirrely as all get-out. I eased off the throttle as the "pucker factor" began to set in once again. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, Pucker Factor is when you start getting as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs. The cheeks of your behind constrict so tightly that you couldn't slide a greased needle between them, even if you utilized a piledriver. Finally, the truck slows to a speed which stabilizes the steering and the worst of it fades away. As the snow got thicker, all of us were averaging somewhere around 35-45 mph. Any faster and you started puckering up again. I resigned myself to a slow trip northward, until I eventually reached the point at which the plows had had time to remove some of the white crap from the road. But how many miles ahead was that point? I didn't know and neither did anyone else.
Seymour, Columbus, and Indianapolis all came and went with no relief in sight. By the time I moved on north of Indy, I was having another problem -- clear vision. The salt crud that had inevitably gotten slung on my windshield earlier was now mixed with snow, which built up into an icy mess on the glass. The wipers did only so much good before they just started smearing it all over the place and it had gotten cold enough by then that my washer nozzles were completely frozen up. Just as well, really, because any attempt to wash the crap off would only result in it freezing instantly and making things even worse. I turned the air conditioner on, to dehumidify things, cranked the heat control up, turned the function knob to partial defrost mode and cranked the blower onto a higher speed. It was too cold to turn it on full defrost and I wasn't about to freeze myself half to death for the sake of a windshield which needed a thorough bath anyway. Somewhere in the control settings there had to be a compromise and I played around until I found it, more or less. I could at least half-ass see what was happening on the road before me.
I settled in on the back door of another truck and told the driver on my CB: "I hope you can see where you're going, cause if you hit that ditch, I'm gonna be following your ass into it very shortly." He laughed, admitting that he was having as hard a time as I was. Misery loves company and we yakked back and forth as we slowly moved northward. Eventually, he exited and I was alone again, with nobody running with me. I was managing around 40 mph and passed two trucks who thought 25 mph was the safest speed, I guess. Passing was LOTS of fun, as the left lane is always worse than the right one and snow had completely covered the guide lines in the road. You had to guess at where that left shoulder was, or hope you would feel the vibration of the rumble strip when your tires hit it. The problem is that snow packs down in the ridges of that warning strip and you can't hear or feel anything, if the accumulation is heavy enough. It wasn't long after I'd passed the two slowpokes that disaster almost struck me.
I could see the first light of daybreak in the east, but the sun wasn't nearly up yet. A truck came down a ramp to enter the highway and I checked my mirrors and eased over, to make room for him to come out. I was trying to run as far left as I dared, to give him ample room, when I felt my left steer wheel sink into soft snow. I had run off the pavement. Normally, that's no big deal -- you just carefully steer it back onto the road. But something was wrong; the wheel didn't want to respond and turn to the right. I don't know if I'd hit a rut in the soft ground, or what, but I felt a lurch and saw that my trailer tandem had also ran off and was sliding slowly to the left, toward the median. At that point, pure instinct took over and all my experience was called into play instantly. I seesawed the steering wheel until my left tire broke free from whatever was trapping it and cut it shallowly to the right. Not too sharply, for fear that I would tip the trailer over onto its side. Fortunately, my drive wheels had remained on the pavement and they began to pull the rig back onto the road. I had caught it before the trailer wheels got too far into the snow and they came back up, also. But I was now sliding wildly. I countersteered just as wildly, turning into the slide, then back the other way, to compensate for over-correction. For maybe eight seconds, my trailer was all over that roadway. I had lifted completely off the throttle instantly and as the snow slowed the rig more and more, the sliding became more manageable until I finally had it going straight again. I fished for the right gear, found it, and proceeded on. Ten minutes later, my heart began to beat normally again and I let out a sigh and silently thanked the Guy Up Above for helping me out when I needed Him. Comments from other drivers who had witnessed my near miss ranged from congratulating me on a good save to questioning my mental aptitude. I ignored the latter, as there's always at least one asshole in every crowd. That's life.
About twenty miles further north of that incident, the going got much better. I could see two black strips of pavement in the right lane and a little further on, the whole lane was black asphalt. I had reached the point where the plows were at work. It continued to improve and by the time I hit Crown Point, both lanes were black again. When I got onto 80/94 westbound in Gary, the road was clear; plows, combined with the perpetually heavy traffic in that area had kept it completely clear. Now there's one example of how heavy traffic can be a blessing (although it's probably the only one). I had made better time than I thought I was going to, also. I pulled into my first customer's lot just 45 minutes late; not bad, considering what I went through to get their freight to them. Dispatch never said a word about my tardiness. They'd BETTER not!!! No telling what they might have heard from me. Certainly not printable in a family blog like this one.
Two hours later, I drove out to the closest rest area and collapsed into my bunk, totally shot. The rest of the week was uneventful and routine. I encountered a little more snow in Michigan, but nothing like what I went through on Wednesday morning!