If I were a world-famous author, given to the spinning of tall tales, the likes of which leave the reader breathless with uncontrollable, rib-dislocating mirth, 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 added a narrow and crumbling asphalt path covered in enough layers of ice to make the producers of Frozen swell with pride. 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 be the end of me. There would have been jagged rock ledges with yawning, gnashing teeth that nipped and slashed at my soft rubber tires 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 what it was on that winter day; a large hill with a gradual incline to the top of a rather boring precipice, followed by a long and steady slope down the other side. In reality, the mountain was not unlike a hundred others that run along I-80 in southern Wyoming.
I was listening to an audio-book 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 across 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 audio book vanished, as did the reveries of the bugs of yore that came and left my windshield.
The bottom of the hill was a little over a half mile away, and there was a display of roughly a dozen tractor trailers in the ditches on each side of the road. Some were rolled over, the trailers twisted on top of the tractors, and others had somehow managed to remain upright, though their trailers were also twisted about in various angles.
The wreckage had piled up until it reached all the way across both east-bound lanes of the highway. Several tow trucks were busy clearing a path for those of us yet to succumb to misfortune.
I was going about thirty-five miles-per-hour, but quickly realized that if I didn’t think clearly, 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 down 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 chooses to pass 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 side view 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, I realized that he was 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 below.
I was elated to see that the trucker ahead of me was skillfully gliding in between the wreckage, which gave me hopes of repeating the copying of the cat.
I had thought I would stop and see if I could help anyone that might be hurt, but as I drew closer, I noticed several ambulances and a few squad cars on the shoulders.
Two highway patrolmen sat in their cruisers on the uphill side of the wreckage. They saw me at the same moment and stuck their hands out of the driver’s side window 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 rapidly approaching from behind.
At the last minute they saw the trucker behind me. Apparently fearing they would be crushed, they jumped out of their squad cars and began to sprint down the shoulder of the road in the opposite direction.
Under different circumstances, I might have found a tinge of humor in the officers who abandoned their cars and literally outran me and the guy behind me. As it was, I was quite focused on the immediate task at hand; that of manipulating my way through the narrow opening in the wreckage. I squeaked through with inches to spare; the gap so close that I was quite sure I heard the chickens on the side of my trailer squawk with fright.
I breathed a prayer for those who weren’t so fortunate. After all, I could easily have been one of those in the ditch, a trailer pinning me down inside my tractor.
Behind me, I saw a cloud of snow as the trucker took the ditch, narrowly avoiding the squad cars, the ambulances, and the vast 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 my soft rubber tires, gnashing their teeth…
I’ve found it is often unwise to bite the hand that feeds you, but after carefully pondering my narrow miss 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 belonged, instead of a position much lower in the anatomy, where it currently resided.
I thought a well-timed steak dinner with my weekly load planner 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 was right.
My next trip had all the signs of being a thing day-dreamers day-dream about. Possibly I could even solve the mystery of where the Crawdads actually sung during this run. I was headed north to Minnesota, an innocent run with absolutely no mountains, and rarely even a large hill. Sure, there were plenty of lakes, but they would all be frozen, so I had no fear of going on any unexpected float trips, right?
I grew up in neighboring Wisconsin and saw myself a seasoned tolerator of the frigid temperatures of the north. Having grown up with horses and buggies, I knew that as long as you kept shoes on a horse’s hooves, and hay in its manger, it would take you wherever you desired to go. I was therefore unfamiliar with, but had heard rumors of, how diesel fuel can gel, forcing the engines to quit running if the temperatures get too cold.
Being the super trucker that I am, I decided I would be well-prepared for whatever Mother Nature had in store for me, as long as it didn’t entail mountains. I would take a dozen bottles of anti-gel for just such emergencies, and exactly like the directions called for on the bottles, I would obediently mix them into the fuel every time I stopped to fill up.
The further north I traveled, the lower the temperatures dropped. To make matters worse, a strong wind now arose to welcome me to the Twin Cities.
By the time I reached Grand Rapids, Minnesota, the temperature on my dash showed minus twenty degrees and dropping. I made my delivery and, being the super trucker that I am, and with a 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.
I now made another grave discovery. Darkness was rapidly drawing its curtains, and I had not seen another vehicle on this road in over an hour. Could it be that the people of Minnesota were accustomed to such weather, planned accordingly, and actually stayed 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.
I began to call towing companies, but with no success. 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 being rescued. 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 and approved of my vulgar language.
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. I began to ponder 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. My phone told me that the actual temperatures were now 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 load-planner, 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. Was I really such a helpless soul that I needed 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 would I ever be able to tell anyone that I had called the cops because I got ‘cold’?
I went through a progression that went something as follows:
If I froze to death, I could 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 others would be out of a sense of obligation. But tears are tears after all.
I next pondered whether there would ever be any poems written or any songs sung about the trucker who was found frozen stiff as a board in the bunk of his truck, back in the winter of 2019. I had to admit that it did have a certain ring to it, and I thought that 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 good 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 speeding 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 load-planner 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 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.
On the back burner I also put the notes I had scribbled 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 biblical pamphlet that invited me to his church several miles further down the road. But those are tales for another time.