The winter driving season begins with a scare

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See? This is me, loving winter a couple of years ago. Pre-truckin'.

I used to love winter. I’d walk three miles to work in the snow, sleet or cold. I didn’t care. I’d just bundle up. I’d camp in it. Sure, it’s not as relaxing and carefree as summer camping, but it got me out into the woods. I’d hike in it, hunt in it, sled, ice fish, run. I even completed a 64-mile adventure race in it. Winter has always been okay in my book.

And then I started truck driving. And know what? Winter can go away. I mean, it’s still super-pretty and everything, but in a truck weighing up to 80,000 pounds with 18 wheels to skid around on… it can be kind of dramatic. Slippery. Dangerous. And at times… downright scary.

For example. Yesterday was our first big winter run-in of the season. A stretch of road in Wyoming along I-80 was expecting 3 – 6 inches of snow. Adam showed up at our shipper on Tuesday night, about 5 hours early with the hope that maybe… just maybe they’d load us early. If they did, we might get through that stretch before it hit. They didn’t load us early. Right on time, in fact. We were out of there at 1:30am on Wednesday morning. We tried!

In Nebraska the rain started. Adam woke me up somewhere around Cheyenne, Wyoming, and it was snowing huge, wet, sloppy snowflakes. We watched the outside temperature drop. 35, 33, 28… The snow turned less wet, the roads got shimmery, and our Wyoming roads notifications were warning us of slick roads and… Dun-dun-dunnnnn. Black ice.

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The snow begins heavy and wet.

For the future, if our warnings ever tell us of black ice between Happy Jack Road and Laramie, I’m shutting down. Here’s the story –

At the top of a climb, at around 8,400 feet in elevation, is Happy Jack Road. There’s a big rest area with a giant statue of Abe Lincoln all lit up in a creepy yellow glow. Maybe a minute after I passed the exit for this rest area there was a marquee over the highway that read, “Accident 1 mile ahead. Expect delays.” I saw brake lights a ways ahead so I began to slow down. Good thing I started early! The second my foot hit the brake – ever so lightly – I felt the truck slide just a tiny bit. I was able to strategically get myself safely stopped before the backup, and then I watched as trucks behind me tried to stop. One started to skid and took to the shoulder to avoid running into the truck in front of him. This is all at low speeds, by the way. So freaky. I held my breath, hoping none of the drivers were going too fast. Flashbacks of photos popped into my head from some of the major pileups from last year. I was shaking just thinking about it. Had I known… I’d have stopped a mile back and gone to bed until the sun came up to warm the road and melt the ice. But here we were, stuck in stopped traffic with nowhere to go. Just a moment too late.

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Sitting. Waiting.

We were on a 5% decline, which is a pretty steep grade. I set my tractor brakes, but left my trailer brakes released hoping it would keep them from freezing up while we waited for traffic to start rolling again. When I let my foot off the service brake (foot pedal), the truck slid slowly forward down the hill and finally stopped with my passenger tires on the rumble strip after a few feet. This road was solid, glare ice.

A fellow trucker informed us on the CB that there was a pickup with a trailer tangled up, as well as a semi jacknifed down the road, blocking the whole two lanes. So we waited.

After nearly two full hours of sitting and watching the road get icier and icier as a light snow continued to fall, we got word that a lane was being cleared and we were going to start moving soon. Then a state trooper drove by, stopping to tell all the truckers and 4-wheelers to take it SUPER slow. Here we were. A whole line of trucks and a few cars (it was maybe 3am) about ready to roll down a 5% grade on glare ice. I kept thinking, “this could get ugly really fast.”

When the truck in front of us started to go, he pulled off the shoulder and into the right lane, going maybe 2 mph. It was a crawl. And then his trailer started to slide out in front of him, forcing him into the beginnings of a jackknife! I just sat and watched, totally freaked out, as he tried to regain control. At only two miles per hour!

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Yikes! You can see where his tires were skidding down the hill.

This was nuts. I shouldn’t be here! I was thinking I may have ended up in a situation where I’d actually need to pull out the chains! I always said I’d shut down before that happened (and thankfully our company supports these decisions!). I wish I had shut down. I wished I wasn’t on this slippery hill.

So the driver with the wayward trailer finally got his tractor tires on the shoulder for some grip and came to a stop, taking up all of the right lane and half of the left lane. He had to physically get out of his truck, and crawl under his trailer to hammer at his trailer brakes to break the ice that formed between his pads and shoes. All this went on as a few other trucks started to pass him on the left shoulder. I wasn’t going to move until I felt safe to go, but I also didn’t want to sit there and watch this guy crawling under his trailer on a slippery road with trucks going by. What if one of them slid and clipped his trailer while he was under there!? “Oh, God. Quit thinking,” I thought to myself as my stomach turned.

The dude made it out just fine. He got his tires rolling and rolled on down the hill. Whew.

Me? I followed behind, but I stayed on the shoulder using the snow and rumble strip for extra grip. I drove 2-3 mph for about an hour. By then quite a few trucks passed by in the left lane, and the warmth from the tires and engines (I guess) warmed the road enough that it was no longer glare ice, but a slick slush. Still not ideal.

That was a terrifying 15 miles of downhill, and it took almost three hours to get down, but we made it down safely. I thankfully saw no other accidents, skidding, nothing. And the crazy thing? Once past Laramie at the bottom of that hill, the roads were clear and eventually completely dry maybe 30 miles later. The sun came up, and it ended up being a beautiful day (with the exception of a little bit of snowfall at the border of Wyoming and Utah).

So winter is most definitely here. All day today we received notifications of black ice and a few more accidents in Wyoming. It looks like by the time we get there, our drive should be clear. Lord, I hope so, anyway!

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Just a tiny sample of the 20+ texts from WYDOT this morning. Glad to be in warm Cali!

Next week it’ll be the Sierras and good ol’ Donner Pass. Unless the forecast changes. Let’s hope for sunshine!

A couple of other tidbits from this experience –

The original truck that jack-knifed (not the guy in front of me) got towed back UP the hill, and the poor driver and his co-driver were sitting in the cab with the dome light on… It was like a walk… er… tow of shame, rolling past all the other truckers. Ugh. That sucks.

While we were waiting on that hill for the accident to clear, the stretch of road we were on officially closed down due to winter conditions. Gah… A little late, in my opinion!

The trucks trying to climb the hill going eastbound (the ones that squeaked through before they shut the road down) were clearly struggling to get enough grip to continue rolling upward. That became totally clear when we passed two trucks pulled over, stopped, with a snow plow that stopped next to them. The snow plow driver got out with a shovel and was shoveling sand under their tires to help them get going!

Winter as a trucker is totally insane. And a little crazy. It’s and adventure, that’s for sure!


Tonight I love LOVE LOOOVE dry roads.

Thanks for reading and being a part of my journey!

With love,
Toots Magoots
(Robin Grapa)

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