Joe Buck Trucker Extraordinaire
by Rick Beck
Joe Buck, American Trucker
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I was going north on I-81 on December 22.
Mark, my helper for a few months this time, was on the truck for the second time that year. He was one of those helpers who knew his job, never got in my way and riding for Mark was as good as anything else.
He climbed into the bunk east of Nashville. He wanted to get a few hours sleep because he needed to be up and making sure I stayed alert as we drove into the night.
I had a delivery time of noon the next day. I was heading for the Montgomery Ward's warehouse in Landover, Maryland. We were about eight hours out when I give Mark a shake and told him to roll out.
"What's up?" he asked, immediately clearing the cobwebs out of his head.
"Slide up front. You'll see for yourself," I said.
"Shit," he said. "How long has it been snowing?"
When I left Bristol it was just starting. It looks like it has been snowing a while along here. No telling what's north of us. It could get worse and we might run out of it," I said.
"How far do we have to go?"
"Maybe three hundred and fifty to four hundred miles."
"We going to make it by noon?" Mark asked.
"If it keeps this up for any length of time, no we won't. I need to keep going or there's no chance we'll make it. If we get far enough north we can pull over at a rest area and wait for the plows to come through but we've got a lot of miles to put behind us before we can do that."
"How fast you going?" Mark asked.
"Forty. It's all the faster traffic is moving. I'm not getting out in the hammer down lane to wrestle with the big boys. They're way too hot for me," I said.
"Hot and don't have a lick of sense. At forty we'll be there in ten hours," he said.
"At forty it'll be eight tomorrow morning if we keep moving at this rate. I don't think we'll keep moving at forty if the snow keeps coming down like this. We've got some big hills ahead of us."
"There's two inches on the ground here," Mark said. "Not on the road yet. We could run out of it in a few miles."
"If they knew this was coming they might have treated the roads earlier. That would be a big help," I said. "Unfortunately I haven't seen one treatment truck or plow."
"When did you know we were going to run into snow?" Mark asked.
"When it started to snow. I haven't heard a weather report since we fueled in Little Rock this morning. Roads were clear and dry all the way through Tennessee. They had no information on Virginia."
"Where's everyone going on Sunday night?" Mark asked. "It's a bit late for church services."
"We're moving slow. Four wheelers get crazy when it snows. I might try to hook onto one of the trucks going past. Let him be my eyes and break the snow for us. I'm not comfortable moving too fast in this stuff once i get out there I've got to go whatever speed the truck pulling me goes."
"One thing is for sure, our delivery time is out the window if we keep moving at this speed. It's going to get a lot slower if the snow starts laying on the road."
"You're right. On the next stretch of flat ground I'm going to get into the fast lane. I'm tired of crawling," I said.
I could see fine in my West Coast mirrors. I just couldn't see what was ahead of me. I swung into the left lane as three trucks passed me in a line. I made four.
The snow didn't let up. It had begun to creep from the shoulders of the two lane super slab onto the edges of the road. In another hour the road would be covered. After fifty miles of being in the left lane I swung over in a line of trucks that were keeping a fair pace. I had to get off the wheel and go slow for a while or I'd burn myself out before I was close to where I was going.
"Man, I'm glad you got out of that lane. I'm about to piss my pants," Mark said. "You can't see when you do that."
"Most truckers aren't going to run into something if they can prevent it. Once you get out there, you need to keep up or get run over," I said. "I'll give it a rest for a while."
"The roads haven't been treated," Mark said, watching the snow slowly creeping over the entire road.
"No. Too much to hope for," I said, watching the truck in front of me.
It was about as dark as it could get. The traffic was fairly heavy for Sunday night. The traffic at the bottom of I-81 in Virginia was usually light.
A lot of people planned on being home for Christmas and they were all on the highway. In a couple of hours it would be the day before Christmas Eve. Truckers needed to deliver before Christmas. No one wanted to be sitting on a load at the house. That meant you would be delivering the day after Christmas and no trucker planned to leave the house late on Christmas day.
At Roanoke we lost a good percentage of the four-wheelers and the trucks kept moving. I was once again thinking about tomorrow's delivery. I needed to put some miles behind me but the pace had gotten slower and I knew there were hills ahead of us that we might not get up. I didn't say anything to Mark but if the snow kept coming down at this rate, we were going to be stranded on the highway and it might take days to get moving again.
I was driving in a line of maybe twenty trucks. We'd slowly dropped down from fifty to forty five in the last hour.
My speedometer showed forty-one miles an hour. I'd never get where i was going at this rate.
"You ready for a go in that giddy-up lane?" I asked.
"Man, you got to do what you got to do. Those bad boys are moving right along in that lane. I hope you know what you're doing, Joe."
"If I knew what I was doing, I wouldn't be a truck driver." I said.
The high ballers ran past the line of trucks in the left lane. There were only two lanes in that part of Virginia and some truckers couldn't stand riding in a line of trucks. They had to get in the giddy up lane and compete with the four-wheelers to see which was more suicidal.
I lost my nerve before I got out there. Three trucks passed moving well over 60mph and I wasn't going to do it. I sat with the slow but steady wins the race boys but I didn't like it. I needed to get some miles behind me.
My money was on the truckers being more suicidal. I'd seen some real crazy truck drivers and I didn't want to be one of them. If the peddle wasn't to the medal they were parked. Riding along in the slow lane was fine with me when the snow was piling up. I'd get to where I was going with twenty trucks ahead of and behind me. We were the steady as you go truck drivers. We took our time, took regular breaks, and got to where we were going on time.
The high ballers were forever pulling over for coffee, a short break, or to ogle a cute waitress at one of the truck stops they can't pass up. The line of trucks passed the same rig five or ten times a day but one thing was for sure, in a half an hour to an hour, the high baller would be flying past the line of trucks I was in yet again. They couldn't keep going at the break neck speed they maintained.
I read the tortoise and the hare. I know steady wins the race. The high baller lives on the edge. He needs to stop frequently because no one can drive hammer down for more than a few hours at a time if he wants to survive to deliver his load.
I wanted to survive to deliver my load. I also wanted to deliver it on time. I always deliver on time. Not rain, sleet, or snow hadn't stopped me yet but it was beginning to look like the odds of me maintaining my streak of on time deliveries was in jeopardy on one of the worst weather nights in my truck driving career. It kept getting worse.
I wasn't stopped yet. I'd keep going until I couldn't. If I was late delivering they couldn't say I didn't try.
It was late in December and I was heading for the house for a Christmas layover in Clinton, Maryland. I'd loaded in Conway, Arkansas, and I was heading for Landover, Maryland. Landover, Maryland was a half hour from my house. It was a perfect load for a trucker who wanted to get home as quickly as he could once the delivery was safely made.
Most winter nights on the Interstates are iffy at best. Moving five hundred to a thousand miles a day, you might start out in brilliant sunshine and seventy-degree temps and you might end in snow and sleet with the temps well below freezing. While this day had started with moderate fifty-degree temps, there was no sign of the hazards that would face me by days end. The night was already closing in on Christmas Eve eve and I'd made a hundred miles in the last three hours as the snow pelted my windshield and even the back of the truck in front of me was becoming blurry.
"Mark, see if you can get a station on the radio."
Mark leaned on the doghouse and fiddled with the radio. He got some very loud static and faint signals from Roanoke. You couldn't make out what was being said. After going up and down the dial twice he turned it off and sat back in his seat.
"Nothing," he said as the windshield wipers moaned. "We aren't going to make it at this rate," Mark said.
"We always make it, Mark," I said. "When haven't we made it?"
Trucks in the hammer down lane continued passing us like we were moving at a snails pace. The snow boiled up under their wheels, blinding me for just enough time to get into trouble.
"Why can't we move that fast?" Mark asked,not wanting to know.
"Because we don't want to end up in a ditch fifty miles up the road," I said.
I used a rag to wipe the inside of my windshield, hoping I'd be able to see better. I'd dropped two lengths of my truck off the truck in front of me. I wouldn't be able to stop in time if he came to a stop but I had room to get into the left lane. Fever and fewer trucks tempted fate in the left lane. For the first time we moved in the right lane at thirty-five miles an hour and nothing was going any faster tonight.
"Why don't we pull off," Mark said. "Call in the morning and tell them we'll be late. It's six inches deep along here."
"Where will I pull off? This is literally the middle of nowhere, Mark. We've got what we've got and we're stuck with it. If I'd known it would get this bad, I'd have stopped around Roanoke. There's nowhere to stop out here."
Mark leaned forward and put his hands on the dash in front of him. He moved his face closer to the windshield. I slowed down to thirty-three. The truck ahead of me moved farther ahead. Whatever happened, I had plenty of room.
"Where are those big ass hills. There's a mile long bridge and then you go straight up for a mile or two," Mark said.
"Twenty or thirty miles. The bridge crosses Buffalo Creek," I said.
"Yeah, that sucker is two or three hundred feet down," Mark said. "I'd hate to go off that bad boy."
"It's a hundred feet down to Buffalo Creek. You'd only go off that bridge once," I said.
"Ain't that the truth. Can we make it up that hill? It is pretty steep," he said.
"At this speed. If it's covered in snow. We won't make it up. If we built our speed up to fifty-five or sixty, we might make it. There's nothing between us and that bridge," I said.
Mark turned his head to look at me. I saw the fear. He had nothing else to say as we continued north on I-81.
I reached my right hand back in the bunk and I grabbed the Willie Nelson tape I kept handy. I loved the sound of Willie's voice. He soothed me when I was running behind and facing a long hard drive ahead of me.
"On the Road Again," Willie sang.
Every time I left the house that cassette went into the player so I could hear those words. I was on the road again and tonight it was snow filled and slick. I was doing thirty and Willie sang us every onward into the night. I was sure Willie sang many a trucker through long hard nights.
The CB crackled and there was trucker's chatter. Trucks ahead of us told us there was no break no relief. If anything the snow was heavier as we drove north. Mark looked at the radio before he looked at me.
"It's quiet. Why is it so quiet. That's the first its woke up in an hour," Mark said.
"Keep both hands on the wheel and concentrate on what's ahead of you. We're doing some serious driving, Mark. No one has to tell anyone else it's serious."
"I guess not," Mark said, sounding apprehensive.
When you haul freight for a living you face all kinds of weather. You try to position yourself so you aren't caught in the middle of nowhere when a big storm hits. The problem with eastern Tennessee and southern Virginia, it's all in the middle of nowhere.
I'd driven in the snow plenty of times. One night after picking up a trailer in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, I slept for a few hours so I'd go through Milwaukee and Chicago late at night. When I woke up from three hours sleep, it had snowed four inches.
Like I said, I've driven in all kinds of weather but I'd never had to break new snow. Driving out of Sheboygan was no problem. Nothing but snow plows were in the road but when I pulled down on the super slab it was once continuous blanket of snow coming everything. Whee was the road?
No one had driven on the highway yet and I had to break the new snow. I road with my right wheels on the shoulder and my left side wheels on the highway. I drove by watching for the reflectors on the shoulder. I drove from one reflector to the next. I could see open fields on my right. I could see houses up on the hills as I moved at ten miles an hour. I never was sure I was still on the highway but I hadn't gotten stuck as I felt my way south.
It took me two hours to get out of the new fallen snow. I saw no other vehicle on the road until I was thirty miles north of Milwaukee and suddenly the road was wet but there was no snow on the road. I felt like I'd just driven a thousand miles.
That was the worst weather night I'd had as a trucker, until this night. At worse going south toward Milwaukee, I might have run off the road and got stuck. At ten miles an hour, I could stop instantly. I'd have been fine.
Tonight if I went ten miles an hour I'd be run over in two minutes. I'd have obstructed the interstate. There was nowhere to go but keep moving north on I-81 until everyone came to a halt. Then we'd have what he had and we'd wait for the plows to dig us out in a day or two.
"Jackknife," the CB radio crackled to life. "Jackknife on the bridge. Left lane is open. Two, no three trucks are jackknifed up against the railing in the right lane. Left lane is clear so far. Jackknife on the bridge."
"What's it mean?" Mark said.
"It means that we're in a world of hurt. That bridge is dead ahead. I don't see us getting across it tonight and then there's that damn hill to climb," I said.
"North American, I'm coming through. Get behind me and well shoot that bridge and get up the hill. I'm coming up on your left. Get my back door and hammer down, son, hammer down."
It was shiny red Kenworth pulling a CRST trailer and he gave me the come on signal as he steamed past my slow moving GMC. Seeing no lights trailing him, I was on the accelerator and I fell in behind him.
"Do you think this is smart, Joe," Mark asked.
The quiver in his words told me what he thought of the idea.
"Pull your belts tight. Get on the CB. Ask if the left lane remains clear. If it is we're following this guy as far as we can go," I said.
I didn't want to sit at Buffalo Creek for two days.
"Breaker one nine," Mark said. "Is the left lane open on the bridge?"
"So far. No one's going to pull out there from a stop. The right lane isn't moving," a voice said.
We were right on top of the bridge. I didn't realize that we were that close. I'd pulled up to the back doors of the CRST trailer and I had the hammer down. I knew he could go eighty if he wanted and I couldn't get over sixty-five.
"Left lanes clear as far as I can see," another voice said. "No one in the right lane is going to pull out, that hill is covered in ice. You couldn't get up that sucker at sixty. Trucks are stopped halfway up the hill. They're in the right lane. Left lane is still clear. I'm stuck behind these damn jackknifed rigs. We aren't going anywhere tonight."
"Breaker one nine," Mark said. "We're hauling ass and shooting the bridge in the left lane. CRST and North American are coming through. Get behind us if you want to take a shot at that hill. CRST with North American on his back door. Come on if you can. We're coming through."
"Good thinking, Mark. You're a good helper, you know."
"I hope you can say that tomorrow," Mark said, leaning forward to watch the back of the CRST trailer.
I was doing 58 miles per hour as we went down the hill above buffalo Creek. They were still reporting that the left lane was clear. I'd never done anything this crazy before but that night I did what I needed to do.
I no longer cared about the freight or my delivery time. I simply wanted to get up the hill on the other side and pull over and wait for the snow plows to open the road.
When we hit the bridge I was doing 61 miles an hour. There were trucks lined up in the right lane for over a mile before the bridge. No one was going to pull out into the left lane because as sure as shooting, some dumb ass driver was going to shoot the bridge and have a go at that hill on the other side.
Early in the morning of December 23, I was that dumb ass. I'd never have done it if the CRST driver hadn't called me out. He knew I was leaving plenty of room to be able to pull out in the left lane to go and he didn't want to go alone.
It was an open lane and someone was going to shoot the bridge at Buffalo Creek, once the right lane was closed.
I never asked CRST his name but he got us through and up the hill on the other side. As I looked back in my West Coast mirrors, I could see the trucks stopped on the bridge. There were other trucks coming across in the left lane but no one fell in behind me and none of them were going fast enough to get up the hill.
As we climbed the hill we passed three more trucks in the right lane. They were all spinning their wheels. One had begun to slide back down the hill.
I wouldn't want to be those guys.
As I reached the top of the hill and hit flat ground I was doing forty-five. I slowed down from there. I'd lost the lights on the back of the CRST's trailer two thirds of the way up the hill and he was nowhere in sight.
I dropped my speed down to fit the conditions. We didn't say anything to each other. We'd lucked out big time. Up the road a piece I came to a rest area. I turned in and put my truck in a position where no one could block me in. I was facing the exit ramp and the road.
I was still shaking. I wasn't going to go to sleep for a while. I watching the road but no one came past.
On December 23 at one thirty a.m. I was the last vehicle to cross Buffalo Creek and make it up the hill.
I fell asleep in my seat. I felt like I'd driven a thousand miles. My eyes got heavier and they finally closed.
At six I started my engine. I eased back onto I-81.
I drove at fifty miles an hour and didn't see another vehicle for an hour. The road was plowed fifty miles ahead.
I was on the Capitol Beltway by ten and I delivered on time and I went to the house.
All you four-wheelers remember, keep the shiny side up and the rubber side down.
I'll catch you on the flip flop.
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