Rollin’ Down the Freedom Highway

Never knew that living on the road was so good. Good wasn’t born on the cusp of a big fat paycheck.  Instead, it meant living on the edge of excitement, the thrill that fed my delusional state, and I was grateful that it paid my note while quenching my appalling desire for exploration and fun.

Good also meant doing something that consistently challenged my painful existence, something that make my weary eyes shine without putting a heavy strain on my sun-weathered cheeks.

Living it large, rolling down the freedom highway, passing endless stretches of white meadows and green pastures – reflecting on my sordid past and ignoble failures until the dear road came to a dead stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

By all intents and purposes, I was a trucker — a sojourn title I could wear shamelessly on my threadbare shoulders, a title that bore no semblance to my homegrown roots or disparate upbringing.

I existed in a parallel universe – a whole new world of living and breathing, and I often wondered out loud how I got here in the first place.

As my vagabond tractor barreled down the forlorn freeway, the 80,000 lb gross vehicle weight seared an indelible stamp on the freshly smoldered asphalt that fleeced taxpayers millions to lay down. The despised highway tolls sucked pocketbooks like marauders and etched a derisive scorn on commuters and pleasure-seekers alike.

Under my grandiose hood, I sported a turbocharged Maxxforce 13, powered by 450 Belgian draft horses. But it was not the gallop of the thoroughbred stallions that made the diesel engine the miracle machine that ruled the byways of America. A diesel engine may not be able to beat Usain Bolt in a lightning-fast dash. But it has the power to haul a battle-tested M-1 Abrams 11,000 feet up Colorado’s notorious Loveland Pass and back down with a grade 7 slope for a whole nerve-wracking mile. Low gears on the tranny, topping at 1200 RPMs, your brakes smoking, knocking the living daylights out of you. You best get out at the next turnout, not to check your brake pads and drums but to change your soaking pants.

Unlike most company drivers, I drove the beast with a veritable 10 speed. Call me old fashioned, but I preferred the direct, hands-on approach of an Eaton Fuller gear box. I drove my Prostar like it was his own chariot and each RPM, each gear ratio mattered like a skilled artisan.

On steep downhills, the driver with the big stick has the advantage of downshifting so the engine can work more efficiently and the brakes more endearing. Must downshift to the gear that keeps away the willies but whatever you do don’t miss a gear and stall. Nothing more hair raising than to tumble downhill like a boulder on max gravity with zero control of your gears.

The field of trucking operates on ant-size margins.  That’s why the fleets are ecstatic when the price of crude oil and diesel embarks on a steady decline. Something to do with the shale oil revolution that had kicked over the barrel, making OPEC kick and squirm.

Diesel like gas operates on the principle of internal combustion and that’s where the similarity ends. Where a gasoline engine requires a spark to ignite the fuel, the diesel engine compresses the air many times over raising the temperature to over 1000°F, like Kilauea in all its wrath.

The air is so hot that once diesel fuel is sprayed and atomized into the combustion chamber an explosion ensues without the need for a spark. The controlled explosion pushes the piston back down producing the power that converts the reciprocating, up-and-down motion, into rotational motion that drives the wheels.

And with a tandem 3-axle truck towing a 2 axle, 40 foot flatbed trailer, Chip was in control of 5 axles and a remarkable18 wheel bearings.

I stretched my arms out over his head and yawned in tandem. Already he had registered 10 hours driving for the day.  Based on the bastard hours of service rules, he had only 4 more before he had to call it quits. Fuck it!  Those armchair office bandits at FMCSA.

I was pulling ten pallets of lumber from Columbus that started to look like it was shifting every time I dared to glance back. The receiver wanted the load tarped and coddled like a delicate roll of paper, but upon inspection the pressure-treated wood was already infested like a gangrene-infected wound with greenish-black mold.

No tarp means less work, no loose ends flapping listlessly like a fluttering sailboat in irons. And he could keep a keen eye out back every time the load started to shake and  crawl.

Where would I stop for the night? That same question perennially came up yet it always seemed to stump me.  The Frederick truck stop was only 30 minutes away. But Iz

I dreaded stopping there.  The lot was small always congested and everyone around him always liked to idle or start their engines in the middle of the name to keep their batteries charged so their cabs stayed cool.

Chip pursued trucking to be alone on the open road not to be sandwiched in between a reefer and a pig hauler.

By all accounts, I was a reckless loner and pursued a life of solitude.  He savored the eerie sound of quiet, not the constant chorus of reefers, engines and APUs that roared through the night.  The only sound he could tolerate was the persistent hum and drum that refracted from the highway nearby.

A Wal-Mart or Home Depot or any vacant lot would suit just fine.  The parking lots could be congested but I would take a passenger vehicle over a tractor trailer any day. Even if I drove one, didn’t mean he liked their company.

Still I never knew living on the road so good.

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