Tuesday, May 20, 2008

2008/03/29


I've got one last winter driving story for you.

As I write this, I realize what trouble there was on each end of this trip. It began as weird spring weather in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Above several hundred feet of elevation, the fog was very dense. In a boat, there would be nothing but the sound of the water lapping on the hull and the rattle of the rigging. The watch would be on deck staring into the surreal expanse of grey; straining their ears for the bell of another vessel. Instead, I'm straining my eyes hoping to catch the wisp of some color or the glow of tailights before it is too late. I hope I'm going slower than whoever is in front of me.

A truck looms out of the fog. It starts as the faint constellation of two low tailights and the DOT marker lights over my head. My confidence is shaken as I quickly slow the truck. I follow this guy for several miles. He is achingly slow. After a couple trucks and several four wheelers pass us, I decide to go around him. Up and down through the mountains, the haze squelches all frames of reference. I feel like I am flying by his truck. Looking down at the speedometer, I'm barely going 47 mph!

Finding an exit ramp in the fog is interesting. In the mountains, it is just plain spooky. My directions say "off ramp, turn right, 1/4 mile turn right at light, use second driveway." I can barely see the leading edge of my hood. Creeping along, I find the customer and drop my trailer. The empty trailer they give me is ancient and illegal; one of the DOT lights is out. 13 feet in the air, I can't replace it myself. With barely enough legal hours, I make a pickup and then find a truckstop. I'm beat; mentally tired. In the morning, I'll get that light fixed.

Hanging around waiting for the shop to fix my light, I see the Weather Channel National Map. Snow and winter storms the whole length of my trip from Middle Pennsylvania to Northwest Wisconsin. Chicago and Milwaukee are supposed to get it bad tomorrow. A simple light fix expands to include service on three of the four wheel hubs on the trailer. I am now several hours behind schedule.

Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana have no snow and hence are no problem. As soon as I cross into Illinois, it begins to snow. It's not real bad until I get to Wisconsin. It is snowing very hard. A heavy wet spring snow in the high twenties. It is freezing.

The change in the road is immediate. There is so much wet snow, and it is so cold, there are half mile long strips of ice under my passenger side tires. It feels like it is an inch thick. I can see only a little better than when I was in the fog.

My heater has two settings; "Off" and "Weld." I've had it off for a little while. The ice sneaks up on me. Suddenly, ice is freezing on the windshield in the widow's peak where the wipers don't reach. Ice is forming on the wipers themselves. Wiper fluid barely keeps the salt off and does little to melt any ice. It makes the ice on the wipers worse. The road is a little better because it is snow covered. We are down to one lane as no one braves the hammer lane. You can't even see it.

I am no fair weather driver, but I want to find a place to stop. My problem is that it is 22 degrees and I don't have enough fuel to idle all night. With diesel fuel over $4.00 a gallon, the company is understandably stingy with fuel. Instead of running out of the top half of the tanks, they are running us deep into the bottom half. Tonight, that's a problem. My fuel stop is only 100 miles from my delivery. I have to press on regardless.

Ice on the wipers is so bad, I am having to knock it off. I can't pull over to do this as the few exits I've seen haven't been plowed. Getting back on the highway could be a problem. To stay ahead of the wiper ice, I have to reach out the window and snap a wiper. To do this, I have to find a straight patch of highway; turn off the engine brake; roll down my window; stand up in the cab, coasting; reach out and grab the wiper as it cycles toward me; and snap the wiper without rolling off into the snow. Not just off the highway, but outside the two tracks of those before me is dangerous. There are times I'm crouching down or leaning to one side to be able to see; putting off the wiper snap as long as possible.

By the time I reach my fuel stop, I've driven 35 or 40 mph for the last five hours. Almost a futile exercise and physically daunting as well. I haven't been able to reach the passenger wiper. It has five pounds of ice on it; as big as my arm. There is a quarter inch of ice on the headlights. No wonder I couldn't see! I fuel up and send a message that I won't be making the delivery tonight and park. It is the sleep of Van Winkle.

In the morning, on the way through the last 100 miles, there are four trucks jackknifed and in the ditch. One looks bad, tractor folded around on the trailer and 50' into the woods; fifth wheel first. I made the right call.

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