Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Bill Archer

January 7, 2013

Snowy roads can change solitude of trucking into spiritual moments

— About a week before Christmas, I got a call from a friend of mine from back in the days when I lived in Morgantown. We had exchanged emails a few times, but I hadn’t seen him since when my brother died back in 1991. At that time, he had a pretty successful real estate business in Maryland. When he called me that evening, he was driving tractor-trailer on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, getting ready to cut off the super slab at Breezewood and head east on I-70.

My friend hasn’t been driving too long and has less than a year behind the wheel. That’s about seven years in tourist time. The real estate market had softened. He is just a year younger than me, but as all truckers know, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. It’s a hard life, but it’s honest work, and if you’re willing to work at it to get better at what you do, there is a chance you can eventually make a good living.

Anyway, we talked for a while before he went into a tunnel. He drives a Volvo tractor and his truck is filled with modern GPS gear, hands-free communications equipment and has climate-controlled comfort, which is all a far cry from the 2-55’s air-conditioning unit I had in my truck — two windows down and 55 miles-per-hour.

I got a call after Christmas from our mutual friend who had told him that I sometimes write columns about my experiences over the road. She said that he likes driving truck, but not in bad weather. I responded that I felt just the opposite. Bad weather — snow and ice — usually kept four-wheelers off the roads. Over time, a trucker can learn how to deal with just about any weather-related challenge. People, on the other hand, are unpredictable.

Driving into Chicago during the winter was always like rolling dice. In the early 1970s, we didn’t have a 24-hour news cycle or weather radar apps on cell phones. In fact, we didn’t have cell phones back then either, except in the imagination of Gene Roddenberry. During most of my driving days, I didn’t even have an AM/FM radio or an eight-track tape player. If I was headed into a lake-effect snowstorm in the Windy City, it was always news to me when I arrived unless some trucker stopped ratchet-jawing on the CB radio long enough to give a weather report.

When I was running two rounds of Chicago a week, it seemed like I drove into a different blizzard about twice every week. Chicago was always much more acoustically appealing to me under a blanket of snow. After the 1871 Chicago fire, city planners laid Chicago streets out on a grid pattern, and as a result, a trucker like me driving in the city a century later had no trouble getting around. Severe snowstorms took a lot of traffic off the road, and driving around in a vehicle with 18, 22-inch wheels gives truckers a little higher snow drift clearance than most personal vehicles, although all vehicles have traction challenges.

Snow deadened traditional highway sounds, but a whole lot of snow made driving on a highway downright eerie. I experienced Lake Erie and Lake Michigan lake-effect storms a lot, but one trip to Osewgo, N.Y., during a snowstorm coming in off of Lake Ontario gave me a better perspective of driving in snow. As I was traveling I-81 north of Syracuse, I reached a point where snow-removal crews apparently gave up the thought of clearing the snow down to the pavement, and simply graded a ramp to the top of the snow pack.

From my vantage point, I could see reflectors atop 4-foot-tall metal posts right at the snow-pack level and big road-side highway signs that I had to look down on to see. With that much snow beneath a 50,000-pound payload of aluminum, it felt like I was driving on a sound proof barrier of some kind. Nothing in my previous experience as a trucker prepared me for that, and after I dropped my load that morning and drove back south far enough to drop off the snow pack, it was like I re-entered a different world.

The thing I liked most about driving on top of a snow pack was that there weren’t many cars up there. In fact, I felt like the entire highway belonged to me. In those days, I always sought out solitude. It gave me time to think about where I would be 40 years later, and how I would write about the natural power of being alone in a truck enveloped in a universe of snow.

Experience teaches a driver how machinery will react to ever-changing weather conditions, but I was never able to routinely predict what a person would do when they were on the road. The actions of people was one variable that defied predictability. In those days, I loved the loneliness of a long-distance trucker. There was a spirituality about that solitude that put me at one with the world. Sometimes, I miss those days.

Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

 

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