I have formally requested a regional driving position with Roehl; one that will keep me in THE SOUTH!
After four trips into the Sub Zero (the appliance brand) freezer that is the upper midwest, I have officially had my fill of sub zero (thermally-speaking) temperatures in the upper midwest or anywhere else for that matter. And don’t get me started on snow and ice.
You don’t have to get me started because I am starting myself. Responding to popular demand (thanks Val) I herewith present my winter driving experiences over the last couple of months.
FLASHBACK TO ANCIENT TIMES
Before getting to the grizzly details, let me declare that I grew up in Minnesota and lived in the upper midwest until I was 32 years old. As a child I ice skated, ice fished, built snow forts, sledded and toboganned and woke up early to listen to the radio for school closings. After getting my drivers license I regularly drove in both snow and ice.
Working as a propane gas company marketing manager in Green Bay, Wisconsin, (motto: It Can NEVER Be Cold Enough), I routinely drove the highways (giving more credit than due to many of the roads I drove) of the northern half of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. News flash: Da UP, especially up in the Houghton / Hancock area, routinely gets 300 inches of snow each winter – often before January 1st.
My favorite Winter in the UP story has to be the time I stopped at the home of one of my local reps who lived just south of Houghton. Although the drive north had been beautiful and mostly sunny, it had started snowing around L’Anse and was coming down pretty good by the time I got to Russel’s place. After downing a quick beer with him he asked if I wanted to go for a quick snowmobile ride. Of course I did.
By this time there was five inches of snow on the ground and it was starting to blow. Oh, and now it was dark. So we set out on the country roads leading away from Keweenaw Bay, a beautifully large body of water extending south from Lake Superior (yeah, where the Edmund Fitzgerald sunk). It was COLD!
About 20 minutes out on a snow-drifted county road we came across a car sitting, almost floating, on a three foot drift. Its lights were on and the motor was still running. We got off our sleds and slogged up to the driver’s door. There was an old coot sitting at the wheel with a dumb grin on his face. He said he’d been sitting there for maybe 30 minutes before we arrived and was visibly glad that we showed up. He said it was warm and sunny when he drove up the the Legion Hall in Iforgetwhere but was snowing pretty good by the time he’d had a few beers and decided it was time to head home to the wife. He was pretty surprised at how bad the roads were but thought he could make it. There wasn’t a homestead in sight so he thought he’d be best off just sitting where he had gotten stuck and wait for a snow plow. I think he would have waited a loooong time and there was a better than even chance that he would have run out of gas before daybreak. As drunk as we was, he was flirting with the great beyond.
Russ put him on the back of his snowmobile and we took him back to his place, a 20 minute snowmobile ride. His wife was thankful but couldn’t hide her anger that the old fool had gotten himself liquored up and stuck in the UP wilderness. Nevertheless, she offered a bite to eat and a sip of brandy. We declined, and headed back into the snow and thought the proper course of action was to head to a tavern to drink a few celebratory beers. Quite possibly, we saved to old dude’s life.
But enough of our heroism.
My first unique winter trucking experience came on my first winter trip to Wisconsin. After an unload in Wausau, I had an 05:30 drop and hook at a paper plant in Wisconsin Rapids. I was out of hours for the day and thought there was a truck stop just east of there on I-39 in Plover. I had seen it on the way north and was hoping there’d be an open spot on the way back south. Turns out it was not quite open. The lot was barricaded but I snuck through the barrels where a FedEX truck was parked. A beautiful, large concrete parking area beckoned but I was a bit nervous about staying. The FedEX driver said there was parking at a restaurant just across the road, so that’s where I parked just minutes before my hours expired. I even had a nice burger at the restaurant before I bunked down for the night. The waitress gushed a stream of “OH YAHs” and “YOU BETCHAs” over the thirty minutes I spent in the joint. Because I had spent a lot of time in Wisconsin Rapids when I lived in Green Bay, I had a lot of questions about how the place had changed.
I was up at dark-thirty and headed for the paper plant in Wisconsin Rapids. The first thing I noticed was that the new truck stop across the street was now open for business. Sigh, timing is everything. I made my way to the paper plant where I dutifully dropped my empty and picked up the paperwork for the loaded trailer. I drove to a couple of different lots on the other side of the tracks before I found my trailer in a lot that was dark as a mother in law’s heart. It was around zero degrees with a nice northerly breeze. The lot was very icy. So icy in fact that when I tried to back under my trailer, I didn’t have enough traction to actually lock onto the kingpin. I bet it wasn’t until the tenth try when I got a 25-foot run and heard / felt the industrial strength click. Phshew! Then I had to weigh my rig on the single platform scale. This means I had to weigh the steer wheels, pull forward to weigh the drives and then all the way forward to catch the trailer tandems. I was heavy and it took a few weighs to get the tandems set right and the peoper weight distribution. When I finally got it right I was able to leave The Rapids and head south to the Chicago area where I dropped the load of paper.
WATER IN FUEL – BAD
But I wasn’t done fighting the cold on that trip. I picked up a load of medical supplies (heating pads and frostbite remedies, I think) and drove back north to a northeastern suburb of Minneapolis. On I-94 between Madison and the Minnesota border I started feeling the diesel miss as it climbed the hills. My delivery was scheduled for 04:30 so I kept on trucking and figured I’d get the truck looked at after I made my delivery.
As a quick aside, the trip to Minnesota wasn’t a total loss in that I connected with my old friend Ty. He picked me up at the warehouse that evening and we had a nice reunion dinner at an Embers restaurant. Way back in my second job out of the U of M, I worked at an advertising and public relations agency and one of my assignments was writing and editing the employee newsletter for Embers. I remember the owner’s mission statement for our agency: “We need you to recover our seats with a$$holes as many times a day as possible.” Ty and I had a delightful visit, and the Emberger Royale with their special sauce was just as good as I remembered.
Back at the truck I turned in for the night. At 03:00 I heard a knock at my door and instructions to back up to door number 4. They had me unloaded within an hour, and after another couple of hours my daily 14 reset and I was able to head south for my next reunion (with a couple of babes from my high school graduation class) and pickup (not a chick but a freight pickup).
Not half a block from the warehouse I had just left, my truck started missing worse than ever. My smartphone indicated 12 below zero. I called in to see how Roehl wanted me to handle things. The maintenance guy then talked me through 45 minutes of “Try this. No try that.” It was pretty evident that my fuel system was frosty and the “Try this” that finally worked was for me to take inch and a quarter cap off the top of my fuel filter, stick a screw driver in and puncture the top of the paper filter inside the glass dome. That hole was enough to introduce enough diesel to the injectors to get me to a repair shop and get the fuel filter replaced. After 45 minutes working under the hood in sub zero temperatures with a stiff wind I was officially FROZEN.
I cranked the heat up as high as it would go and made my way to Lakeville where I finally put in my contact lenses, brushed my teeth, and met my high school friends at the McDonalds next to the truck stop. Yeah, we were high rollers. I hadn’t seen either one of them in more than 25 years. They both looked GREAT. We agreed that none of us had aged a bit.
After our visit, I picked up a load of breakfast cereal in Northfield. Only trouble here was my fifth wheel wouldn’t unlock. It was another drop and hook, so if I couldn’t drop my empty I wouldn’t be able to pick up my loaded trailer. I had had this problem earlier on this tour. The tractor I drive, a PDN (pretty darn new) International ProStar Plus, has an automatic fifth wheel release which means I can lower the landing gear manually, disconnect the lines to the trailer manually and then jump in the cab and push a button to decouple the fifth wheel (where the kingpin of the trailer attaches to the tractor). Another neat feature of the tractor is the fifth wheel is teflon coated which means I never have to put grease on the fifth wheel. (I know you’ve seen tractors without their trailers, running around with grease snaked around the top of the fifth wheel. ) Unfortunately, some idiots still put grease on them and the grease gets down into the innards of the fifth wheel mechanism. When it gets cold, the grease gets especially viscous (sticky instead of slippery) and the auto unlock, is not able to actually unlock the mechanism. I still have the manual pull-lever, of course. Unfortunately, I am not strong enough to manually unlock it. THREE TIMES I have had to call on truly manly men to help me out. The first time it was another trucker. The second time it was a yard dog driver (the guy who drives the little boxy tractor in warehouse operations where they have to move the trailers around the facility). That’s who did it on this occasion. And the third time it was a mechanic at the Appleton Roehl terminal. I finally had a mechanic scrape the excess grease off the fifth wheel mechanism and then spray it down with a degreaser. I’ve had a couple of problems since, but I’ve been able to handle them myself, without having to reveal to the trucking world that I am, indeed, a 150 pound wussy.
Finally – I was able to mosey on back to Texas where it was a balmy 45 degrees and cloudy. By this time my blood was thick enough that 45 degrees made me feel like getting out my Speedo and jumping into Lake Conroe.
THE ILLINOIS “HIGHWAY OF DEATH” (Apologies to Saddam Hussein, may he rest in eternal misery)
After three days in the semi-tropics I picked up a load in SE Texas bound back to the Chicago area. I knew it was going to be nasty but by the time I got to southern Illinois I thought perhaps the worst had already passed. Silly boy. Silly boy. After fueling up at the Loves in Ina, I was back on I-57 and after passing north through Mt. Vernon (did you know there is a Mt. Vernon in just about every state I’ve been to?). There was a significant increase in the number of vehicles in the ditch. There were more and more patches of ice and snow on the roadway. It wasn’t long before the traffic started slowing and the roads got even worse.
We all slowed to 30 – 40 miles per hour. EXCEPT for the occasional idiot that was still doing 60 and the BIGGER IDIOT that was toodling along at the mind numbing speed of 5. On roads like this there was usually one lane that seemed to be passable, usually the right lane. The passing lane was a crapshoot. But you can’t stay behind somebody doing 5 STINKING MILES AN HOUR! For one thing, 5 mph doesn’t give you enough momentum to get up even a modest slope. So, many of us used the passing lane to get by these BIGGER IDIOTS.
And I was running out of driving hours. I figured if I averaged 30 miles an hour, I would make it to Effingham with enough of a cushion to find a place to park at one of the four major truck stops.
Silly boy. Silly boy.
It got worse. The little lady in front of me did a graceful 270 and ended up just off the paved surface into the right side ditch. I was maintaining enough of a following distance so I didn’t get involved but make no mistake, this was my first butt clenching moment. By this time and place you couldn’t drive a hundred feet without a car, truck or semi in the ditch. Some were rolled onto their sides although most had four or more wheels in contact with a frozen surface.
Not much farther on, an SUV swirl into the ditch in front of me and made it all the way to the tree line where it introduced itself to a poplar. A 30 mile an hour average for the next two hours was pure fantasy. I was already thinking of excuses for my hours of service violation. There were times when we all stopped (What was all this traffic DOING out here in the country on a day like this???) and I changed my status from On Duty-Driving to Off Duty-Break.
I was tense but kept my big rig on the road, and I was still creeping past the 5 mph bigger idiots. My next butt clenching moment came when I saw a moderate incline up ahead with traffic stopped in the left lane. I eased back into the right lane and saw that a highway department PLOW was trying to PUSH a TANKER up the hill. Yes. The plow was up against the back end of the tanker and trying to push it. All their wheels were spinning and I say again, you gotta have some momentum to make it up a hill. Once you stop, you’re dead.
I barely had enough of the Big M (momentum) to make it to the top of the hill, my drive wheels slowly spinning all the way. My rig was trying to slide towards the ditch. It was a few minutes before I got my butt cheeks unclenched after that experience. The traffic would ebb and flow after that. I finally made it to Effingham, but my troubles were not behind me.
I pulled off the freeway at an exit that had two of the four truck stops. I put myself off duty. It was semi gridlock. I don’t mean sort of or halfway gridlock. I mean it was big rigs, one behind the other, every direction you looked.
I crept the last third of a mile into the Flying J. It took four stop light cycles just to get onto the city street at the end of the freeway off ramp. It took a solid 20 minutes to get into the lot and tuck myself behind another truck that was improperly parked. Hey, I was out of the traffic lane and other trucks could get by me. I was done for the night and wishing I had the makings for a Brandy Manhattan.
I got out of my truck and walked further into the parking area to see if there was a more legitimate place to park.
Let me here say, that when it comes to truck stops, I am one of the good guys. I never park illegally. Well maybe twice when I was totally out of hours and could NOT drive another mile or another minute – once at a Loves just south of San Antonio where I pulled up to the pump between the outermost fuel lane and the scale (remember, I wrote about backing into the truck that was hidden behind me at 3 a.m. when another driver woke me up to tell me a legit spot had opened up) and the other time at a Pilot on I-30 near Sulfur Springs, Texas, when I was three deep beside the scale. Other than those two times, I have been a model truck stop parker.
Back at the Effingham FJ, after seeing one impossible spot (for me) and watching another driver crawling under his trailer tandems to loosen up his frozen trailer brakes I walked back to my truck where I was greeted by an Effing FJ employee asking if this was my truck. Yes. Well you gotta move. Why? It’s impeding traffic. No it’s not, trucks are moving through this lane with no problem. You must move now. What? You’re going to call a wrecker to tow me out of here?
Look, I said. It’s still light out and every space is taken. It’s only going to get worse. If I leave, somebody else is going to pull in and you’ll spend all your time kicking people out of this spot. And come morning, there’s going to be a truck parked here anyway.
He was adamant and said he would call my company and raise hell, so I gave him some not very nice words to pass along and got into my truck and left vowing to do vile things if ever I had to return to this armpit of a truck stop. It took me another 20 minutes just to get through the FJ lot and on my out again and guess what I saw? A truck parked just where I had been and the Effing FJ punk was nowhere to be seen. I was trembling with rage. After another 10 minutes I was backtracking south on I-57 to the Petro at the next exit west. It was the biggest truck stop in Effingham and the reason I didn’t stop there first was because I foolishly thought I would be able to grab a shower at the FJ where I had a shower credit. I didn’t have a freebie coming at Petros or TAs. Well, there would be no shower tonight. As it turned out, I wouldn’t even see the inside of a men’s room until midmorning the next day.
As I turned right onto the street leading to the Petro, I waited patiently in the line of trucks headed to the end of the street where I would make a left into the lot. Unfortunately, when I got there, a cop car blocking the way into the lot. Petro was evidenlt parked full. I rolled down my window and the nice policeman what he suggested that I take a right and drive a mile to a lot down the street that might have a space. If there was no space, he said to just pull to the side of the road and stay there for the night. I found a truck repair shop the seemed to have the welcome sign out. I walked to the office and politely asked if I could spend the night if I promised to be gone by the time they got there in the morning. He nodded. I parked, took out my contact lenses without washing my hands for the first time maybe ever, peed in my half gallon plastic bottle, and, it now being dark, shut down for the night.
I woke up just before 4 a.m. My alarm hadn’t even gone off yet. I wanted to hit the road before the BIGGER IDIOTS started moving. Trust me when I tell you that I was one of the VERY few human beings moving at that hour. As I made my way back to the freeway, there were semis everywhere. There was barely room to drive down the street. Semis were double parked along the shoulder of the freeway for a mile or so past truck stop row.
The roads were bad, but since I was about the only one out there, I was able to keep moving, averaging perhaps 40 or 45 mph. By the time I got to Monee, the roads were much better. I had a few hours before my load was due in Chicago, According to the local radio stations, Chicagoans were staying home today so the traffic should be light (PLEASE!). So I pulled into a Loves and took the shower I didn’t take the night before. The hot water felt extra good.
The last negative experience of this day was getting back to the freeway. The loves was situated at the bottom of a modest slope. That meant you had to drive uphill to get to the street leading back to I-57. Cross traffic on that street didn’t stop. So trucks were having a very hard time getting onto that street. After watching a couple of semis try (they ended up backing down the hill) I took my turn. With my fat drive tires, a perfect touch on the accelerator (if I do say so myself), and a mix of luck and assertiveness at the stop sign, I got up the hill, made the turn and finished my route without incident.
NOT WHERE I WANTED TO BREAK DOWN
On my next trip north, it was perpetually cold. I shivered a LOT. Normally I like drops and hooks. No waiting around to get loaded or unloaded. But with a drop and hook you spend more time outside. Being outside in below zero, windy conditions is something I normally avoid. On this particular morning I was delivering empty cans I had picked up in Wisconsin to Indiana. I spent an icy cold night at a Pilot just north of Indianapolis and had a 07:00 delivery at a tomato canning operation near the Indiana – Ohio border. That was a bit over 100 miles. I then had to boogie to southern (remember that word, southern) Ohio for a pickup, another 100 miles. I got there around 10:30 and had just pulled into their shipping lot to see where I would drop my empty and where I would find my loaded trailer. They told me, kindly, where to go. As I was moving my empty trailer to where I would drop it, my truck died. It would start and run for a few seconds and then die again. It was perhaps 50 feet beyond where four semis were backed into their doors and pretty much right in the middle of all the coming and going truck traffic. This would be, shall we say, inconvenient for everybody.
A quick question: How is it that I could get rolling first thing in the morning. Drive 120 miles and then park for a couple of hours. Start my unit up again, drive another hundred miles. Then park for 10 STINKIN’ MINUTES, and have my fuel system freeze up???
I called in to our road breakdown line and the ordeal began. Not being a diesel mechanic, I certainly did not have the final answer in this case, but with the temperature at 12 below and the wind blowing a steady 20 miles an hour with gusts up to perhaps 30, and the engine exhibiting signs of being starved for fuel, I would have bet at least a week’s pay that my fuel system was FROZEN. The road rescue folks didn’t necessarily disagree, they just wanted me to “try a few things.” So I tried for the better part of two hours. Not a continuous two hours, but in 10 minute stretches. I had my battery unit keeping the truck warm, at least for the time being, so I would work until I couldn’t feel my fingers then hop in the cab to thaw them out again.
I put diesel anti-get in each tank. I messed with the fuel filter, although in this case the punching a hole in top of the filter cartridge trick wasn’t an option like it was back in Minneapolis because there was plenty of fuel in the fuel filter dome. I stuck my oil dipstick into each of the tanks to make sure there was fuel in both of them. That meant I had to wipe off the dipstick real good and find the one big hole in the strainer in each tank. I could find that big hole on the driver side but not the other side. My numb fingers just couldn’t make it happen. I mean, I shake anyway, but in these conditions, I was SHAKING pretty violently
My hands got so cold I finally told road rescue that I had tried everything I was going to try. I got in the truck and almost cried my hands and especially fingers hurt so much. It’s painful to have your fingers get cold, but it hurts a lot worse when they start thawing out again. Dayyum.
So road rescue made arrangements for me to get towed in. The tow truck came a couple of hours later. I spent those hours first in the warehouse directly under one of their industrial heaters, trying not to get mowed down by forklifts, and then in their guard shack which was toasty warm except when they foolishly had to open the door to enter or leave the shack.
To condense the ending of this story: I got towed. To Dayton. They backed my tractor into their garage and put four heaters to work. (I stood in front of them too.) When I finally got back to a 98.6 degree body temperature, I nuked up some food in their break room while the mechanic did his thing. Shock of shocks, the fuel lines were frozen. He replaced the filter and put a double dose of diesel conditioner into the fuel tanks. By this time of course my 14 hour clock had expired so I drove to the front of their property and parked for the night. I did NOT get a load from where I had broken down but instead picked up a load of paper from another plant in the same town and drove south with all due haste.
My hands got back to normal except for one spot on my right index finger. I’m pretty certain it had been bitten with frost. The pain lasted for three weeks until now, I can’t feel the pain anymore. However, my hands now get colder faster.
COLD WEATHER PRELIMINARY EPILOG
I was hoping that was the extent of my Arctic running for the season. Unfortunately, I did not get the regional position (I guess) and I am in Gary, Indiana, as I write this. It just dipped below 20 degrees and it is lightly snowing. And blowing. I’m at our terminal waiting to get my tractor in the shop. My auto-start has been malfunctioning. You see, most companies don’t like their tractors running just to keep the driver cool in the summer or warm in the winter. Uses too much fuel. When I worked for TWCITW (the worst company in the world – AKA Stevens) my truck had an APU (auxiliary power unit). It heated or cooled and provided ample electricity and was powered by a glorified lawn mower engine. It used maybe 15-20 percent of the fuel that an idling diesel tractor engine would use. In my current ProStar Plus, I have a battery-powered comfort unit. It will run the heating, cooling and lighting for four to six hours before the dedicated batteries run down and the main diesel engine has to kick on to recharge those batteries. The engine kicks on automatically. All by itself. Of course it wakes me up, but it’s a comfort to know that I am being taken care of.
This is the comfort solution. And might I add that I am not able to idle my truck for long periods of time. It is configured to idle only for five minutes or so and then it will shut down automatically.
A couple of nights ago, it was only 20 degrees or so and when the time came to recharge the batteries, the dashboard lit up and I heard all the clicking and hissing sounds that signal an imminent auto start. But. It. Just. Didn’t.
So I had to get out of my bunk, get behind the wheel, start up the truck by depressing the clutch and turning the key all the way to the “start” position, let it run for a few minutes, shut it down, and then flip the appropriate switch to set the auto start system. This time, I turned the ignition key back to the “on” position. I had accidentally learned that when I would turn the truck ignition key on in the morning, the truck would auto start. Magically the auto start restarted the truck. When the auto start starts the engine the engine will run long enough to suitably recharge the batteries – typically an hour. The auto start feature is also temperature sensitive so when the temps drop to 10 degrees, the engine will idle longer than five minutes. It will actually idle until further notice.
So here I sit at the Gary terminal waiting to for a mechanic. I’ve been here for more than seven hours already. They just have the weekend crew, doncha know? And since I’m heading to MINNESOTA, I don’t want to get stuck at a truck stop and FREEZE TO DEATH IN MY SLEEP. Temperature in Bloomington tomorrow night is predicted to be 11 below. Hope they can get me shipshape before I head to the frozen(er) tundra.
Why did they ever have to invent the Polar Vortex. I always thought we had plenty of weather to discuss. We didn’t need any made up weather phenomena.