Slipping and sliding
I’m driving down I-80 in Nebraska, going east. The road is covered in a thick layer of white ice. The wind is blowing directly from the north, straight at my driver’s-side door and sneaking through all the seals around the window. I cranked up my heat to keep warm, and notice there’s a build-up of snow on the door by the lock and down by the handle. It’s literally snowing inside our truck as we drive down the highway. I’m going really slow – 25 miles per hour – but I’m moving. Two trucks pass me going maybe 50 mph. I get nervous as they fly by, the reflection of their rigs on the road surface next to me. On the ICE. Snow blusters up around them and in front of me. Visibility is pretty low in areas, and this doesn’t help.
Then I have my first freak-out moment. A gust of wind blows toward me and I feel the truck shift to my right. I naturally turn the steering wheel just slightly to the left – it’s one of those corrections you make in normal circumstances without even a thought – except this time the truck doesn’t react. I can tell there’s resistance under my tires, but the ice keeps them from grabbing and the truck slowly continues toward the rumble strip on the shoulder. I let off the fuel and hold my steering position. The truck slows down, my passenger-side steer tire just bumps the rumble strip and finally catches and slowly straightens out. I realize I’d been holding my breath, so I exhale and loosen my white-knuckle grip on the wheel. I slow down even more, but this happens a few more times as I cruise along. “How in the heck are these other guys driving so fast in this?” I think to myself. We’re even loaded heavy! I can’t imagine how much worse this would be if we were light. Yeesh!
The first detour
I’ve seen quite a few cars and a bunch of semis in the ditch. One rig was turned on its side, a couple were jacknifed, and others just looked to be calmly parked. In a field.
I look up ahead and see flashing red and blue lights. I slow to a crawl. A police car is blocking the highway, waving an orange flag and directing traffic to take the exit ramp with no other information. The highway is shut down. As I exit, I notice two trucks stalled on the overpass. There’s no on-ramp, so I turn left, following a flatbed trucker, hoping he knows where he’s going. We’re on an alternate road to I-80, so I figure we’re okay. I wake up Adam so I can have a navigator, making sure I don’t end up on some dinky road in the middle of snow-drift-ville, Nebraska with no way out.
The flatbed and I approach a stop sign, but there’s a set of railroad tracks before it. Just as flatbed dude gets to the tracks the red lights flash and the gates come down, but he stops in time. We wait, and finally one of those pickup trucks with the train wheels comes gliding by at a snail’s pace and I almost laugh. The gates go up, the lights turn off, and flatbed dude slowly proceeds. Just as his tractor gets onto the tracks, the lights blink back on and the gates start back down! One gate is in front of his truck, and the other is between the back of his truck and the load on his trailer! He’s wedged between them, right on the tracks! He does exactly what I think anyone would do – “screw these gates,” and drives forward. The back one catches a little on his tarp-covered load, but then they start going back up and he just gets through without incident. And no train. Holy crap. That was freaky. Glad it wasn’t me! I’d have pooped for sure.
Towards the end of our detour, I take a big curve in the road and plow through a snowdrift as wide as the road I’m on. A cloud of snow swirls up around us, but we make it through okay. Snowbanks and drifts still freak me out ever since I got stuck in one when I was training in school. Then I see I-80! Oh, thank goodness – soon we’ll be back on route!
My excitement carries me to the overpass over the highway, where I’ll take a left-hand turn and be back on track. Except I suddenly realize I probably should’ve been going about 5 miles per hour instead of 15. I head toward my turn on a small downhill slope coming off the other side of the overpass. I try to very lightly tap my brakes but there is absolutely no response. I’m on glare ice. The truck actually speeds up a couple miles per hour and I realize I am not going to make my turn. I slide right past and continue a short ways down the road until I’m able to come to a stop – about a truck-length past my turn. Thank goodness the road continued on there!
The road behind me is clear, so I activate my flashers and start backing up. Except I’m trying to back up with nearly 80,000 pounds of weight – uphill. I only get so far before it gives up on the ice. I crank the tractor to the left – I can aaaalmost make the turn, but not quite. Now there’s a semi waiting behind me and a DirecTV van waiting in front of me. I put the truck back in reverse – nothing. The tires just spin. Directly in front of me is a snowbank. I lock in the power divider and still nothing. Just spinning drives. Damn ice! Adam jumps out, and so did the DirecTV guy, and they let me know I can go forward another foot or two. I do but it’s still not enough to make the turn. But my drives finally find grip in reverse and I’m able to aim our rig up the on-ramp. I am so done with this ice! I take a couple of deep breaths and drive on. At 20 mph.
The second detour – shut’n ‘er down
Adam finally got back to bed, and I’m just focused on moving on down the highway nice and slow. My ditched-truck count jumps from 12 to 15 when I pass by three trucks in the median, drivers still in their seats. A short while later I approach a marquee sign that reads, “CRASH AHEAD. I-80 CLOSED AT EXIT 353.” That’s the next exit, so I turn off the highway. Again. I turn right and enter a Petro truck stop. It’s insanely busy! I have to wedge our truck between two other trucks just to get through the entrance, and as I begin to circle the parking lot I wake up Adam. I figured he could start looking for a detour while I just keep circling the lot, but then I see an open space next to an oversize load. I turn around and set up for a blind-side angle back. Ooooh, goody.
Adam jumps out and we turn on our headsets. Adam calls me and spots me into our space – I had to set up for it twice, but otherwise didn’t need a pull-up. I seriously LOVE being a team in these situations. Solo drivers — respect. Seriously. I don’t know if I’d ever want to drive solo. Especially in situations like today!
We sit, quiet. Now what? We decide to take a break and head inside. My stress takes over my will power and we sit down in the restaurant and have dinner (Adam has breakfast). Then ice cream. There’s a Baskin Robbins here, so… duh!
We check the weather and alerts say to only travel in emergencies. It’s Adam’s shift now, and he’s wisely not comfortable going on. We discuss the consequences of staying put. This is never, ever an easy decision to consider. Our load will be late. Our weekend will be even shorter than it already is normally. And our plans to visit our friends Andy and Kris will have to be postponed. And… we might have to get a loaner truck because ours desperately needs an overnight visit to the shop for fresh brake pads. But… with all that in mind we make the decision to shut down. Once the decision was made we both feel relief. Dispatch was totally supportive of our decision, and our receiver seemed okay with our being late, too. We relax a bit.
Might as well watch some Super Bowl that neither of us really could care less about. It’s on the restaurant TV as I write this. Seattle just got an interception… but I don’t care. I’m enjoying reliving my crazy day.
I traveled only 250 miles today. I started at about 3:30am and stopped at the Petro around 1:00pm. I started driving in Nebraska and never even got into Iowa. Sigh…
Tonight we will continue on, carefully, and pray that maybe the roads are… I don’t know… a little less icy?
Oh… one more crazy thing really quick! On Friday I had a truck’s tire blow in front of me and a huge chunk nearly hit my windshield! I ducked, cursed, and my nerves shook me for a few minutes afterward. The dude just kept on driving. I don’t think he had any idea, but I don’t know how! His back tires were bouncing so violently that he had to feel it! I guess he had somewhere super-important to be!
What. A. Week.
Tonight I love summer. That is all.