July 10, 2006
Our spring safari took us west to South Dakota and back, west again to Colorado and back, east to Washington DC, west to Hollywood and east to Austin, Texas; north to St Paul, south to Chicago and north to St Paul; west to Salt Lake City and east again to Massachusetts, where I'm sitting now and anticipating heading west to St Paul.
I started this story three weeks ago with details of an ingenious speed trap on westbound Interstate 40 in Henderson County, Tennessee. They had a 70 mph speed limit sign, uncovered, in the middle of some miles of orange barrels on the shoulder they were calling a construction zone. No machinery, no crew. Both lanes wide open. A cop in the weeds who wasn't about to explain the 70 sign. This cost me 139 bucks and galled me greatly. Still does. But that was weeks ago and now it just sounds like more trucker whining, and my mother told me the world wouldn't be fair. She was right. So I ditched the details.
Earlier, en route to Wolf Trap, I noticed an exit sign on I-74 for two towns in Illinois: FITHIAN RANKIN. What a good name for an expert on anything. A person could do a couple of years' study on some mundane subject like the afternoon nap, for example, and then take that for a nom de plume and write a quick book or two and sign up with a lecture circuit, and they'd never have to drive a truck again. "And now, ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased and proud to introduce the best-selling author of 'Snooze Your Way to a Healthy Mind' and 'Live Longer Twenty Minutes at a Time.' He's one of today's leading experts on the diverse history and the manifold benefits of the afternoon nap and here he is in person – Mister Fithian Rankin." A name like that and people are thinking either Oxford or Ivy League, no doubt about it.
To the driver, the recreational highlight of this mighty expedition was a five-day stretch in the middle spent in Austin, Texas. Friends came in from Minnesota and we toured music hangouts like the Shoals, the Little Longhorn, the Saxon, the Continental, the Hole in the Wall. Saw some terrific bands and players down there; Carolyn Wonderland, Redd Volkaert, Cindy Cashdollar and Dale Watson, to name a few. We made the traditional visit to the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan, standing across the river from downtown and looking just like you remember him, only bigger. Made it back to Minnesota on Monday and had a couple days off before the Chicago gig.
You notice cultural differences when you take a ping-pong tour like this, especially this time of year. A couple weeks later, sitting in the Renegade Cafe in Rock Springs, Wyoming (exit 104), you see tan people in boots and blue jeans, and the men's faces and their shoulders tell you they work outside. The women seem cheerful and the kids don't squall. The counter is a big U shape, booths all along the outside walls, under the windows, and you are surrounded by big 4x4 pickup trucks looking in, most with the heavy-duty suspension and the gnarly grille guards. They have stuff in the back, like tools or fuel tanks for field machinery. Maybe a big mutt sitting back there, too, sniffing the morning.
You leave after breakfast and mount the big road, where there are large crossing gates so they can shut it down quickly when things get bad. You climb to 8000 feet, cross a mountain range and cruise over high plains, low plains, hills and foothills; past forests and a thousand green fields and through heat, wind, rain, high water, heavy traffic and more mountains, and on the fourth day you arrive into an entirely different look: pale-skinned men wearing shorts and sandals, shuffling around and blinking in the sunlight like it was an unfamiliar phenomenon. No big pickup trucks. Mostly foreign cars in the parking lots. Small shampooed dogs on leashes. There's a candle factory and a chocolate springs cafe; could be a different country. But the people speak the same language as the ones way back there behind you, and the eggs and bacon aren't that different, either. The bacon is thinner, is all.
On Interstate 80 in Iowa I crossed the North Skunk River and the Middle Raccoon River. There are a couple more, like the North Raccoon and the South Skunk, and I've never been able to keep them all in order. Even guessing they are branches of two larger rivers, it still has the strange feeling that each of these rivers was named after a single particular skunk or raccoon, and how could you know the north skunk from the south one? Wouldn't they sometimes change position? Do they have some way of knowing which raccoon would be the middle one? A better question might be as to how a person could find this so interesting.
I-80 is also home to the Iowa 80, which calls itself the World's Largest Truckstop, a believable claim; I've never seen seven trucks indoors anywhere else. One is hooked up to a 53-foot trailer; there are two other new semi tractors in there, a custom Pete and a super-plush Kenworth, and there are four very cool antiques in the restaurant and the stores. One is a 1930s-era tanker and one is a Dodge Power Wagon, the 4x4 that started the revolution in 1946 and faded at the end of the sixties, just before big pickups got popular.
What gave the Power Wagon its raw charisma was that cable winch mounted on the front bumper. On a frozen January night 25 years ago I got pulled out of an icy ditch, grossing 80,000 pounds with load of bulk potatoes, by the winch on a rebuilt Power Wagon; he hooked my other truck as an anchor on the opposite shoulder and cranked the rig back onto the road. A beautiful green enamel, was that wrecker, fit for a museum. He charged me less than fifty dollars. It was the high point of that winter and the only time I ever slid into a ditch. In a truck, anyway.
I saw no undersides of semis on this trip, no bad crashes at all, but a lot of minor stuff. Cars on shoulders with the same problems they've had from the beginning; tires and cooling systems. Check your tire pressure and your precious fluids and do the maintenance like you're supposed to, or you end up with a shredded tire or steam billowing from your radiator when you climb the mountains in the heat. I did see two different trailer rollovers behind pickups, one that strewed household goods all over the road, and the other that just strewed itself all over the road. I bet they were both caused by the same thing: not locking the lever down on the ball hitch. They had fastened the safety chains, so when the hitch came loose the trailer got itself sideways and then just tumbled along behind until the driver got stopped. They do make a mess when that happens.
'Strew' is an interesting word, in that it sounds like the past tense of a word that rhymes with 'throw,' but it's not. "I'll throw this junk over there in the corner and I'll strew this other stuff on the floor. . . I won't threw this junk in the corner and strow the other on the floor, even if I wanted to."
I made it to the middle of Nebraska from Rock Springs and moved smartly along the road the next day until bumping into Chicago; too bad it's so far out of the way to go around. I crawled the construction for a couple of hours, meaning to stop near the Ohio border that night. But it began raining and at the east side of Indiana I got trapped in the hammer lane and couldn't cross to my exit without creating a wet crisis, so I pushed on and ended up without a place to park in either of the first two Ohio plazas. Long out of hours in the log book, I forced the issue at the third one, sneaking the rig into a forbidden space along the rail and getting a lousy night's sleep after a long day's drive.
It rained most of Tuesday and I made Syracuse and took a motel room. Rained all night and cleared the following morning, when I slept late. I compounded the error by leaving the trailer in the lot and having breakfast at a cute little diner down the road, where I was told they served excellent eggs Benedict. Not something they offer in most truckstops, and I went for it. This led to me getting caught, by about ten minutes, in the closing of Interstate 90 from the flooding of the Mohawk River west of Albany. Sat for an hour and then the troopers turned us back, across the median and back to Utica, and from there we were all on our own.
Contradictory information about detours came in a steady stream over the CB radio; the end result was a seven-hour delay. Part of that was spent on a winding township road too narrow for two trucks; we had our right tires on the grassy shoulder and mirrors almost touching when we met, all of us in a hurry after sitting for so long. The close encounters happened about fifty times in those eight miles, scraping trees at every farmhouse and woods. The branches took out the top front marker light on our trailer, and I assume others got the same.
At the backups I got a real good slow-motion picture of central upstate New York, grinding along in the miles of trucks on old U.S. 20; but I did get through and I considered myself lucky. Two truckers on nearby Interstate 88 were killed that morning when the entire freeway washed out and they dropped thirty feet into the roiling abyss.
Had good sense prevailed I would never have been a part of any of it. I was 220 miles from Tanglewood that morning and if I had piled out of bed at seven and hit the road right away I would have beaten the flood and been in our drop zone before eleven. Then would have been the time to have breakfast and take it easy. It's the old adage about the endgame: you don't let up when victory is in sight. I did that. I let up when I heard the two-minute warning; I took a pit stop on the last lap; I walked the bases full and threw a homerun ball in the bottom of the ninth. I quadruple-bogeyed the 18th hole. I missed an empty net and they took the puck and scored. I had an easy layup but I stopped to adjust my shorts.
The trip average speed was about 63 miles an hour for most of the 15,678 miles, but now there were about 48 miles in there where the average was closer to 6.8 miles an hour. I arrived after supper because I stopped for breakfast. 'A Real Man Takes Responsibility For His Errors,' goes the adage, but there's another one that says 'Whatever Goes Wrong It's Never The Trucker's Fault.' I did a little checking on those eggs Benedict.
One version says that sometime in the 1860s a regular patron of Demonico's, the first public dining room in the U.S., wanted something new for lunch. She talked to the chef and he came up with ham and a poached egg on a muffin, covered with Hollandaise. His name was Charles Ranhofer and her name was Mrs LeGrand Benedict.
The second story says that in 1894 a Wall Street broker named Lemuel Benedict went into the Waldorf with a hangover and ordered "some buttered toast, crisp bacon, two poached eggs and a hooker of Hollandaise sauce." The chef, a legend named Oscar Tschirky, later substituted Canadian bacon and an English muffin and put it on the regular menu. (All this, and much more, comes from a writer named Linda Stradley and can be found on the web site called whatscookingamerica.net)
So if I'm the sort of trucker who'd be inclined to cut himself some slack, I'd be blaming my setback on a couple of famous 19th century New York chefs and a rich lady and a hungover broker, all uncaring that their little masterpiece would someday cause a cross-country truck driver to lose a day in a flood detour.
And this could be the story of an innocent working guy caught in a long web of cruel circumstance. Or it could just be about another bozo not sticking to business. Only my hairdresser knows for sure. And I cut my own hair.
© R.Ringsak 2006