Friday, January 14, 2011

Hanging iron

Although I’m a card-carrying straw hat driver these days, I did pay my dues in winter driving.

The tank line I was leased to had a nice contract for about three years. There was a run from Chicago to Sacramento that was almost always available, especially in the winter, and I ended up running 50 of them over the three years.

There was a steady stream of loads going west, maybe a day apart, and trucks started getting shut down in Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming. Because of road closures, the customer would offer the option of going 300 miles out of route to drop south and run I-40 across. They paid for the extra miles but wanted the same time schedule.

I never took them up on it, preferring to slug it out on I-80. The time schedule was already tight enough for me and if the weather interfered, it ain’t my fault. Besides there was no guarantee that I-40 would be any better. And I-40 ain’t no walk on the beach in winter – more ice, many more trucks.

Actually, we led a charmed life going across on I-80. My wife, Geri, was with me on a lot of trips. There were many times when we were heading into the storms – which were usually tracking east – that we just about had our day in anyway and we would park it for the night. By morning the storm had passed and the roads were getting in pretty good shape.

Somewhere along the line I gathered up some chains, kind of an odd assortment, different sizes, etc., but that didn’t matter. I had no intention of trying to put them on anyway, just wanted something to show the man if he asked.

I almost got away with it. They throw chain controls on Donner Pass, near Truckee, pretty often and the choices are chain up, wait it out, or take another route. Sometimes it’s a short wait, other times the forecast is ugly.

There is a way around Donner. It’s about 90 extra miles, but you can usually make it work. It’s via The Feather River Canyon. It’s a lower elevation, the theory being if it’s snowing on Donner then it’s raining in the canyon. It worked for me three or four times; then one day my luck ran out. Just outside of Quincy before you start down the canyon the CHP were checking everyone for chains. If you had them, put them on or turn back. If you had no chains, you’d get a ticket and have to turn back.

I showed the man my “chains” and went back to Quincy. It was snowing big time and the local weather said it was going to continue for three days. I think I was personally responsible for ending California’s several-year drought. Anyway, out of options I bought a set of chains that would fit and a family size box of tarp straps.

About 10 minutes into this hanging iron process it occurred to me that a gentleman trucker like myself shouldn’t be exposed to something like this. I got them on. And then soaking wet and froze to the bone, I started down.

I was going down a grade; there was a car stalled out coming up in the other lane and another four-wheeler laid out into my lane to get around him. I could see it was gonna be close, even with the chains … I was trying to slow down but my trailer was coming around. Just as the car got back in his own lane, I had to gas on it to keep from losing it.

Lucky for me those chains on the drive axles got a bite and I somehow got it gathered up. At least I wasn’t cold anymore.

A year or so later I bought my last truck, hung those chains in their new racks, and they stayed right there for 14 years.

I guess you could say I hung iron three times, first, last and only.

(Photo courtesy of Bruce Wieser.)