If I were a world famous author, given to the spinning of tall tales, the likes of which might leave the reader breathless with uncontrollable, rib-tickling laughter, I would have made the mountain in question a much more menacing beast. I would have created a peak that disappeared into the clouds and I would have added a narrow and crumbling asphalt path covered in enough layers of ice to make the producers of Frozen proud. And if, by some miracle granted me by the trucker Gods, I managed to survive the climb to the top of that majestic and formidable creature, the descent down the other side would surely have been the end of me. There would have been jagged rock ledges with yawning, gnashing teeth that nipped and slashed at the soft rubber tires on my big rig as I manipulated 80,000 pounds of freight into the yawning abyss far, far below.
But since I am only a truck driver and not a world famous author, the mountain must remain as it was on that winter day—a large hill with a gradual incline to the top, followed by a long and steady slope down the other side. In reality, the mountain was not unlike a hundred others one might find while traveling across I-80 in Wyoming.
I was listening to an audiobook version of Where the Crawdads Sing (note that I chose a summer-themed novel) and musing out loud that one of the advantages of winter driving is the lack of bugs that normally splatter one’s windshield, when the trucker ahead of me, upon cresting the afore-mentioned large hill, tapped his brakes.
The road was packed with hard snow, and a glimpse of asphalt hadn’t been forthcoming for several hundred miles. But, as is usually the case in colder weather, the colder the temperature, the better the traction. On this fifteen-degree day, however, a strong wind was doing a marvelous job of blowing a soft, powdery dusting of snow across the top of the hard-packed snow. This, of course, made for slick conditions.
As soon as the trucker ahead of me braked, I, being by nature a copier of the cat, braked as well. As I topped the hill, all thoughts of whether the ‘Marsh Girl’ actually murdered the villain in my audiobook vanished, as did the reveries of the bugs of yore that visited my windshield.
The bottom of the hill was about a half a mile away, and as I began my descent, I could see at the bottom roughly a dozen tractor trailers in the ditches on each side of I-80. Some were overturned, the trailers twisted on top of the tractors. Others had managed to remain upright, though their trailers were also twisted about in various angles. The wreckage was piled up until it reached all the way across both east-bound lanes. Already, several tow trucks were clearing a path for those of us about to succumb to the same misfortune.
I was going about thirty-five miles-per-hour, but quickly realized that I would be hard-pressed to come to a complete stop by the time I reached the pileup. I used what resources I had, which in this case, were my trailer brakes. When descending an incline in slick conditions, if one brakes hard on the tractor brakes, (as did the trucker behind me) but ignores the trailer brakes, the trailer, being rather tired of its lifelong destiny of following always behind, takes the approach of the impatient tailgater who, upon finally seeing an opportunity to increase its pace, falls out of line and passes the tractor in front of it. I might add that the trailer is not particular about which side of the tractor it passes on. I decided that, on this day, I had no aspirations of seeing my trailer pass by on either side—the large chicken logo on the side of my trailer waving and having a grand old time of it as he passed me by.
As I feathered my trailer brakes to help with the gradual slowing-down process, I saw in my sideview mirror that the trucker who had been following me, had not been quite so fortunate. He had braked his tractor too hard and, to my growing consternation, was quickly gaining on me. The entire seventy-plus foot length of his rig was coming down the hill sideways, his trailer dragging on the snowbanks on one side of the highway, and his tractor dragging on the other side. At our current pace, he would almost certainly overtake me before I passed through the wreckage.
I had thought I would stop at the bottom of the hill and see if I could help, but as I drew closer, I noticed several ambulances and a few squad cars parked on the shoulders. Two highway patrolmen sat in their cruisers on the uphill side of the wreckage, and they stuck their hands out of the windows and started waving for me to slow down. Although they had no way of hearing me, I told them in no uncertain terms that if I were to obey their requests, I would be impaled by the trucker behind me. At the last minute the patrolmen saw that trucker. Realizing the danger they were in, they jumped out of their squad cars and sprinted down the shoulder of the road in the opposite direction.
Under different circumstances, the scene might have been funnier. As it was, I was too busy manipulating my rig through the narrow opening in the wreckage to pay attention to the officers. I squeaked through with inches to spare—the gap so narrow that I thought I heard the chickens on the side of my trailer squawk in alarm. I breathed a prayer for those who weren’t so fortunate. After all, I could easily have landed in the ditch, or much worse. Behind me, I saw a cloud of snow as the trucker took the ditch, narrowly avoiding the squad cars, the ambulances, and the maze of twisted steel.
Wyoming DOT would close the highway minutes after I passed through, but I looked ahead and began the next step of my journey. Elk Mountain stretched out before me, its majestic peak reaching to a point somewhere in the clouds. The narrow crumbling asphalt path I was to take over the top was covered with layers and layers of ice, while yawning, jagged rocks protruded out at the soft rubber tires on my big rig, gnashing their teeth…
We’ve all heard the term ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you’. Well, after my narrow encounter in the Wyoming mountains, I thought it best to allow my heart a week to re-acquaint itself with that cavity in my chest where it rightfully belongs, instead of a position much lower in the anatomy, where it had for a time resided. I figured a well-timed steak dinner with my dispatcher might be just the thing that could change the steady dosage of mountainous runs I had been receiving ever since the first flurries of winter had shown themselves. I figured right.
My next trip had all the signs of being a thing daydreamers daydream about. Possibly, I could even solve the mystery of where the Crawdads actually sung during this run. I was headed to Minnesota, an innocent run with no mountains, and rarely even a large hill. Sure, there were plenty of lakes, but they would all be frozen, so no possibility of going on any unexpected float trips, right?
I grew up in neighboring Wisconsin and viewed myself as a seasoned tolerator of the frigid temperatures of the north. Having grown up with horses and buggies I knew that as long as one kept shoes on a horse’s hooves, and hay in its manger, that horse would take you wherever you wanted to go. I was, therefore, unfamiliar with, but had heard rumors of, diesel fuel gelling, forcing the engines to shut down if temperatures get too cold. But being the super trucker that I am, I would take a dozen bottles of anti-gel for just such emergencies. I would carefully read the directions on the bottles, and I would obediently mix the anti-gel into the fuel every time I stopped to fill up the tanks.
The further north I traveled, the lower the temperatures dropped. To make matters worse, a strong wind began to blow in from the west. By the time I reached Grand Rapids, Minnesota, temperatures had dropped to minus twenty degrees. I made my delivery and, being the super trucker that I am, and with superior knowledge in all things anti-gel and trailer braking related, I chose to take the more scenic route through the middle of nowhere to my next destination, instead of sticking to the well-traveled highways. I was somewhere between Paul Bunyan’s cousin’s abandoned cabin and ‘Deserted Lake Road’ when my engine began to lose power. I checked my GPS. I had one-hundred and fifteen miles to go before I reached my destination, and thirty-three miles to the next town. Then, I made another grave discovery. Darkness was rapidly drawing its curtains, and there hadn’t been another vehicle on this road in over an hour. Could it be that the people of Minnesota are accustomed to such weather, plan accordingly, and actually stay at home in front of their warm fires when temperatures get this cold?
A few miles later, my engine, unable to guzzle the thick gel-like glue that had so recently identified as fuel, began to sputter. I found a spot where a snowplow had carved out an area for just such emergency pull-offs, and I barely managed to coast into the spot before the engine died. I sat and stared at the snowbank right outside my window. At eye level, it stared right back, daring me to step outside and confront it for its menacing existence. I refused the challenge. Instead, I began to call towing companies. After about a dozen unsuccessful attempts at such shenanigans, with most of the towing places telling me they were booked all night with other gelled-up victims who were much closer, I decided to resort to more creative thinking. I will readily forgive the reader for laughing out loud at my following attempts at rescue. Although I was thirty-three miles from any town, I cheerfully, but with little confidence, tried Uber. When that failed, I called a taxicab service some sixty miles away in St Cloud. “Just need a simple ride to a hotel. Piece of cake,” I told them. They disagreed, and even went as far as to hang up on me.
My cheerfulness quickly evaporating, I cursed them. Then I cursed all other humankind that would allow an individual to freeze to death and do nothing to try and help them. The snowbank next to me smiled approvingly of my vulgar language. Or maybe it was only the cold getting to me. Two hours after my engine died, the cold had driven me back into my bunk where I now lay wrapped in quilts and blankets, my teeth chattering as I tried to dial my latest brilliant creation—a pizza delivery driver—under the pretense of needing a pizza delivered. In this endeavor I was likewise unsuccessful.
By midnight, I realized that I would not survive the night in my truck, and I had to reconsider my options. I could get out and make a go of it by walking somewhere. Google maps on my phone told me the nearest house was less than two miles away. I would wake up the farmer and his wife and ask if I could sleep on their kitchen floor.
Hotel TV the next morning
There was, of course, the small matter of the temperature, which continued to steadily drop, and the wind, which had increased to a mournful howl. By now the temperatures were minus thirty-five degrees, with wind chills at somewhere between fifty-five to sixty degrees below zero. Being the super trucker that I am, I decided that if I were to freeze to death, I would do it gallantly and proud, wrapped in the quilts in my sleeper bed.
Earlier, when I had called my dispatcher, we had agreed that as a last resort I would call the highway patrol to come rescue me. I will never be able to explain why this was such a difficult decision for me, but each time I started to dial that three-digit number, I recoiled with shock at the very thought. Am I really such a helpless soul that I need to be rescued like a stranded puppy and hand-delivered to a hotel by our boys in blue? I didn’t think I was, and if I could come up with a better plan, I would. After all, how will I ever be able to tell my friends that I call the cops because I got ‘cold’?
I went through a progression that went something as follows. If I freeze to death, I can think of about a dozen people who would shed a few tears over my passing. Perhaps, of those, only a few would be sincere tears, the rest would be out of a sense of obligation. But tears are tears after all.
Next, I pondered whether there would be poems written or songs sung about the trucker who was found frozen stiff as a board in the bunk of his truck, back in the winter of 2018. I had to admit that the thought did have a certain appeal to it, and if I survived, someday I might write the lyrics for it.
Desperation finally overruled my fear of embarrassment and, sometime after midnight, I called the highway patrol office in St Cloud. As fortune would have it, they had an officer in the area. Fifteen minutes later I was sitting in a warm patrol car and we were heading toward a hotel. It would take another twenty-four hours to find someone to tow my truck to a shop where the fuel was drained, and good fuel put back into the tanks.
By the time I passed back into Iowa, the temperature had reached single digits, and somewhere in northern Missouri the sun made its first appearance in a week. I wondered how many steak dinners it would take to convince my dispatcher to send me south for a week. Louisiana sounded nice. Perhaps even Miami, although that might cost a week’s worth of steak dinners.
As I wrap up my account of the winter of 2018, I look longingly at the notes I had scribbled down of the Idaho trip that saw an avalanche shut down my route, re-directing me so far north that for a minute I thought I might have dinner with the prime minister of Canada. I also scribbled notes of the southern trip I finally got to take, where some man in an official truck with blinking lights pulled me over, but when I reached for my license and registration, he instead handed me a bible, then invited me to his church several miles further down the road. But those are tales for another time…