I have really been wanting to write – I even have a list of topics I’d like to write about, including a few recent experiences, but I can’t focus for some reason. We’ve been busy. We were both crying for a little time off in these past few weeks, but it only came as a partial day here and there – just enough time to get our laundry, shopping and planning for the next trip done. We had a few days for Thanksgiving, which was really nice, but with the 7-hour round trip and many things to do while visiting home, we still craved time off – I mean like sit and stare into space for hours kinda time off. Maybe sleep in. You know, relaxing, veg-out kinda’ stuff. It’s good to have lots of work because it’s a good paycheck, it’s job security, yadda yadda yadda. But we were both feeling on the edge of burning out. I blame winter, honestly. If the weather hadn’t been sketchy in a few spots and the roads were dry instead of icy, I think we could just keep rolling on forever.
Winter as a truck driver is a lot different than summer as a truck driver. In fact, as I was delivering the other day – finding the receiver, battling local hurried traffic, taking tight turns, checking in and conversing with warehouse workers, setting up in small parking lots, battling filthy, slush-covered trailer doors and finally backing into a dock, I thought to myself, “when did this become the easy part of the job and just rolling down the freeway for days become the tough, stressful part?” The answer came immediately. “Oh yeah. Winter.”
Okay, to be fair, it’s only been winter-y in spots – not constant – which is kind of what I envisioned winter trucking to be like for some reason. Like every single day and every mile to California and back was going to be a blizzard with no visibility and roads glazed in black ice. Thankfully there are the occasional dry, clear stretches that allow us to use our cruise and drive 60mph, clear our head, relax and listen to (and actually be able to concentrate on) an audio book.
So basically it’s begun – I’ve started testing my limits with winter driving in this gigantic, super-heavy truck. I didn’t really have much choice – if I shut the truck down every time a snowflake fell, I’d never get anywhere. And trust me, the thoughts linger – “Is it too slippery? Why does it seem like I’m the only truck driving in this crap? Do I have time to stop? Is that plow dropping salt? Sand? Shit! I can’t see when people pass me! Is that wet, or just ice? How cold is it? Why won’t that huge ice chunk melt off my wiper?” You know, basic stuff like that. It makes me also question at what point I DO call it a day and pull over. If the “chains required” signs start blinking, I stop. That’s a no-brainer. But it’s tougher decision when you’re driving in North Dakota where they aren’t going to make you chain for flat, gusty ice-snow. And I don’t want to wait until I start seeing jackknife trucks and spun-out cars in the ditches, either.
So I drive on. Carefully, slowly, super-alert. I know if I’m uncomfortable I can shut it down, but I want to be sure it’s necessary, too. Know what I mean? It’s like there’s this line where it goes from, “yup, this is sketchy, I better go really slow,” to “oh crap, I need to find a place to park and wait this out. Hopefully a spot with a toilet.”
But where is that line for me? Is it pretty much the same for everyone? I’m sure it varies a little, according to comfort level. So I’m trying to find that line for me. But it’s a white-knuckle journey sometimes – and it’s exhausting not using cruise control for eight hours straight. Seriously. What the heck did truckers do before cruise control and power steering? Sheesh! Anyway, it makes me doubly tired at the end of the day, so we’ve been driving, sleeping, driving, sleeping, drivi…. well, you get the picture.
I’ve had two situations so far that kind of stand out – the kind that makes me pucker up a little bit, grasp the wheel a little tighter and whisper “shoot-shoot-shoot” in quick succession under my breath.
The first was in Wyoming a couple of weeks ago. It was very cold and snowing, so the snow wasn’t sticking to the roads yet. Another truck was passing me on the left and I had a guardrail on my right. I was driving pretty slow – maybe 30mph. On the other side of the highway a plow was pushing snow, and as he went past, the wind grabbed a giant plume of his plowed snow and it flew into our lanes of traffic. I couldn’t see two feet in front of me for probably ten full seconds. I just let off the fuel and kept the truck as straight as I could, knowing there weren’t any curves directly in front of me. When it finally cleared, I took a breath. Every time anyone passed me that day, it was another short-lived but terrifying whiteout.
The second was in Montana. The road had a hard-packed layer of slippery-white, shiny snow with another layer of lighter, blowing snow on top of it. It was slick. I climbed up a big grade, and as I got closer to the top, my nerves started to knot my stomach. Here we go! I had to descend. When you’re going downhill in a truck, momentum grabs you and wants to throw you down that hill a million miles per hour. We were told over and over to never-ever change gears going down a large grade. If you get stuck out of gear, you’re pretty much coasting downward with 80,000 pounds pushing at you. You’d be pretty screwed. So it’s crucial to pick the right gear so you can keep control of your speed before you start rolling on down. The last thing I want to do is brake on ice, but unfortunately with the whole momentum thing, braking is necessary. I slowed myself to a near crawl and got the truck into 7th gear before I started down, so I was going about 20-25 mph all the way down. I was able to brake softly to maintain my slow speed, and I experimented with the low setting on the engine brake to help. I’ve recently learned through reading other truckers’ experiences that using the engine brake on ice is a bad idea – it only slows the tractor, so the trailer might want to go faster and swing out in front of you. I think I was going slow enough that it wasn’t having that effect. I made it down the mountain safe with cramped knuckles and a pale complexion – but a little smile (mostly of relief) and a little more confidence. While scary, it was good to get a feel for my first slick mountain descent. I don’t expect that to get any easier, but at least I know it can be done.
And so winter continues, while I continue to hope I don’t have any super-dramatic stories to share, because that would mean something happened. For now I prefer the boring, uneventful, safe trips. Yup, I’ll stick with that for now.
Tonight I love dry roads.