Saturday, February 21, 2009
MY WILDEST RIDE
In eleven years on the road, I've taken some wild rides at times. I've been blown every which-a-way by tropical storms and the aftermaths of at least two hurricanes. I've been close enough to a tornado to feel the twisting effects of those high-powered storms first-hand and I've soldiered on to many destinations through strong prairie "breezes" that were trying to blow me right off the road into the ditch. I've slogged through sand and mud and mucho snow. An icy road had me creeping down a steep hill one time, with my trailer half-sideways all the way to the bottom of it. And just a few weeks ago, I ran off the pavement in a wet, slushy snow and spent several tense seconds trying to keep my caboose behind me, instead of having it pass me up. I've made it through all of the above somehow unscathed, with God's help and a little driving skill. But in all those years and through all the crap that's come my way, I've never had a wilder ride than I took this past Thursday night and Friday morning. And this one had nothing whatsoever to do with the weather.
However, it began with weather -- plenty of the nasty winter stuff. I brought a load over from New Joisey (New Jersey, actually) and delivered it in a small northeastern Ohio town, about 60 miles from Cleveland. The weather there on Wednesday was beautiful, considering that I'd driven mostly in light snow in Jersey, and through the mountainous western region of Pennsylvania. Blue skies, bright sunlight -- just great weather for a welcome change. I got my load off in short order and got dispatched very quickly. Only one problem, though -- the new load didn't pick up until Thursday night, in downtown Cleveland, and then I'd have to do an all-nighter to the destination in Illinois, a few miles from Peoria, since it was due there at 7 A.M. on Friday morning. Oh, well, time to rest awhile. I needed it, since I'd been running like a scared thief all week, up to that point. I headed to the closest truckstop, to take my extended break and on the way I heard the weather folks on a local radio station saying that nasty stuff was headed my way that night and all day Thursday. I looked at the blue sky. Not a cloud in it. Not one. "Are they nuts???!!" I asked myself. It sure looked like anything but snow right then.
Have you ever noticed that weather forecasters are never wrong when it comes to predicting BAD weather?? They only blow their forecasts out the bathroom window when they predict good weather conditions. It's maddening, but that's always the way it seems to be, ain't it? I shouldn't have questioned their accuracy so glibly, like I did, because when I woke up on Friday morning, Mother Nature had once again taken a dump on the area I was in. It was snowing sideways, very hard, and my truck was parked directly downwind and getting blasted. The flakes looked to be the size of walnuts at times. And the radio weather people were patting themselves on the back and jeering at me: "See? We told you so, didn't we?? Welcome to our northern Ohio lake effect snowstorms, stranger!!" Lake Erie is just a few miles from where I was and you get some particularly nasty stuff that builds up over that large body of water.
And some very strange stuff as well. For example, you can drive less than twenty miles in any direction and you might run out of it altogether, into sun and blue skies once again. It snows like an Alaskan blizzard for a half-hour or so, then just tapers off to nothing at all. Just like someone had dumped all the wind and frozen water crystals (snow) out of it completely. Then, just as suddenly as it stopped, it will start up again and resume blasting you just as furiously as before. And that's the way it went, all day long, while I read, napped, and schmoozed in general. The wind was so strong that it blew the flakes to God Knows Where and didn't actually accumulate all that much on the parking lot at all. I went inside at one point and when I came back out, I had a tailwind all the way back to my truck. I think I crossed that lot in ten seconds flat, with the "push" I was getting. If I'd had on skis, I could have glided back, all the way, without moving a muscle, since my body was acting like a big, overweight sail!! Steering might have gotten a little tricky, though.
Thursday night came and I fueled up during one of the lulls between snow-blasts, then headed west, for the 50 miles to the shipper. I hoped that Cleveland's municipal snow removal crews had cleared the streets during the day, because many of those in-town streets where I was going are decidedly narrow, without much room to allow for any slipping and sliding around the corners. I didn't particularly care to buy the City of Cleveland, Ohio a new power pole or two and I certainly didn't want to cause a localized power outage that would cost some residents their lights and heat. And leave little old me as the scapegoat. But, I needn't have worried, because the roads cleared up nicely just a few miles west of the truckstop in Austinburg and by the time I got to my destination, all the city streets I had to run on were only wet. Very little snow on them at all.
It was a chemical company, so I knew, logically, that my load would be chemicals. What kind, I didn't know, but I would find out soon enough. The guard up front sent me around to the rear docks, where the gate was already opened up for me. A spacious dock, for an in-town shipper, for a change. I made a u-turn inside the gate (which had already closed again) and backed into the easiest dock I could get to. I was the only truck in there at that time, so I had the whole dock area to myself. I then went in to shipping, gave them my pickup number, then returned to the truck to wait for them to load me up with whatever it was I was getting. I felt the bumpety-bump bouncing of the trailer on its supension, as a forklift rolled on and off of it, with the pallets of whatever.
After maybe twenty minutes, the green "go for it" light came on, indicating that they were done, off the trailer, and that I could go in and get the bills on the load. I did so. Signed on the dotted line, received a handful of hazmat placards, and was wished a safe trip by the office crew. Placards had a skull and crossbones on them, so this was evidently poisonous something-or-other. I studied the bills in my hand. Some kind of alcohol-based solvent, apparently. No, not hardly the kind you'd want to drink at all. I put placards on both sides of the trailer, then pulled out of the dock and up the sloping driveway far enough to close the doors and put the last placard in the holder on the left-hand side. Ten big yellow metal tanks of the stuff, roughly equivalent to 55 gallon drums in size. So, I estimated that I had close to 600 gallons of the stuff onboard my box. I closed and sealed it, placarded it, then eased up and stopped to allow the gate (automatic on exit) to open, then eased out onto the deserted street. That's when my wild ride began.
I noticed it at every stop sign and traffic light, well before I got back to the freeway. Every time I stepped on the brake pedal, my cargo would slosh around in the tanks back there, causing my whole truck to rock back and forth, like a child's rocking horse. Under power, it didn't seem to be so bad -- I could barely feel it at all, but change my speed at all -- even by letting up on the accelerator a little -- and it was like being in a rowboat in an ocean full of ten-foot swells. "I'm gonna get seasick!" I said out loud. "And I'm on dry land -- in a truck!!!"
I thought that surely once I was up to highway speed, things would smooth out, and they did seem to, when I got back on the interstate and headed out of town. Cloverleaf ramps were a little tricky, because the liquid back there would slosh toward the inside of the curve, making the truck want to oversteer in that direction, so I had to take it slowly on them. But once I was rolling on the Big Road, the undulationg motion seemed to go away. Until, that is, I had to hit the brakes in order to avoid running over a scaredy-cat driver who lost it completely whenever the wind blew a little snow across the road in his path. When I did, the rocking of my trailer was amplified by my now much higher speed. It was like riding a mechanical bull in one of those movies!
I wanted to let off the brakes, but couldn't, of course, without running all over the top of the Nervous Nellie in front of me. The left lane cleared out at last, and I was able to put that one in my rear-view mirror. "If you're that afraid of a little blowing snow, why don't you take that thing home and park it??" I gruffly asked him, as I blew past him. But there were plenty more ahead just like him and I didn't get any relief until I got onto I-71, heading for Columbus, then to points west of there. I wasn't going due west, through Chicago, that night. I wanted to get as far south as I could, and out of that lake effect crap for good. As it turned out, I had to get almost to Columbus before I did. Big storm system.
500 MILES, driving that 18-wheeled mechanical bull!! I think my body was still rocking back and forth in my seat when they unloaded me in Mapleton, Illinois on Friday morning. I was never in my entire trucking career happier to get rid of a load! I wanted to tell my dispatcher that I didn't care what kind of load he got me to go home with, just as long is it don't slosh!!! I didn't actually get motion sickness and I kept all my food down just fine, but it was hard to focus my eyes when I stopped, because they were still rolling up and down in my skull.
That experience was definitely -- different. And I can do without any repeats of it.