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the ramblings of the girl and the truck driver, trip #3 posting 2

The girl:

We stop in a small town last night, Phillipsburg, Kansas, to eat dinner.  We’ve heard that the weather is bad in the direction we are headed, so he needs a minute to look at a map.

High winds, hail, heavy rain, tornados.

He decides we will stay put for the night rather than driving into anything that may send us careening off the road or rolling down a hill.

We walk around looking in all the store fronts.  8:30pm and this town is closed up tight.

This morning he gets up early to get us to our destination on time.  Rummaging around, making breakfast and coffee, then he closes the curtain and starts driving.  I lay back here under the covers.  There’s a window at my head so I look out at the rain and the fog.  I look out as we pass through barely there towns.  I get up for a minute and look through the curtain.  Out the window I see a short strip of road before it disappears into the fog.

Closing the curtain again, I climb back under the covers, looking out of my window, feeling the rumble and rocking as the truck moves along.  Listening as we move, I am grateful for him, thankful that our lives are so valuable to him that he pays attention to the road.

 

The truck driver:

This happened several weeks ago in April.

I’m making a run to Phillipsburg, KS…beautiful sunny day.  Extreme wind conditions.  I was traveling on a very picturesque section of US36 heading east.  To me, this is some of America’s best rural western landscapes.  The song, “Home on the range”, was inspired by a poem called “The Western Home.”  This western home, in the poem, is from these parts.  The wind that day was very strong, wind advisories were up throughout much of the west.  Reports of highway closings, damaging winds, duststorms and overturned trucks had me on alert.  I learned via the National Weather Service and KDOT that there were problems down all along the I70 corridor, south of my location.  I was happily avoiding all of this trouble.  The load I was to be hauling, shingles, low profile and heavy, high wind is not such a threat.  I get loaded and begin the trip southwest towards my destination Lamar, Colorado, in the southeastern corner of the state.  Not giving much thought to the fact that I would be driving down through that I70 corridor, same as the wind advisory corridor.  I believe I am good to go.  Just another happy day driving the big truck on the back roads albeit windy as hell.

An hour or two before sundown, I’m getting down towards I70 and Oakley, Kansas.  The sky is becoming cloudy.  The clouds are brown.  I’ve seen this before, I can see there is dust in the air, lots of dust.  That’s to be expected in these types of windy conditions out in these parts.  The sun disappeared, visibility was down to less than 1/10th of a mile.  I have on my flashers, I’ve reduced my speed.  There are other cars driving, there are other trucks behind me.  I continue on.  Confident, there are other people driving.

I consider myself a safe driver.  Mindful of weather conditions, road conditions, fatigue.  I think I have pretty good judgement when it comes to making decisions whether to drive or not.  Sometimes you find yourself on the road and you wonder, what the hell am I doing on the road in these conditions.  I have done this in fog, I have done this in deadly fog, I have done this in white-out snow conditions, torrential downpours, floods and yes, dust storms.  My desire to go, get there, arrive, unload, load, go, arrive, overwhelms my commonsense. It’s my opinion that everyone has done this at some time, found themselves in driving conditions that were simply no good.

I’m driving into a dust storm.

I have less than 10 miles to go before reaching my planned destination to park for the night, in Oakley, Kansas.  I can make it.  Two miles from my stop, a wave of dirt completely takes out visibility.  I might as well of had my hands over my eyes.  I thought I was going 10 or 15 miles per hour.  As the conditions had been deteriorating on this stretch of highway, there was no shoulder for me to pull over.

I waited too long to get off the road.

In my mind, there was nowhere on the side of the road to park.  I kept going.  Blind and loaded with eighteen pallets of roof shingles, gross vehicle weight, overweight, 81,000 pounds, the heaviest I’ve ever run and I can’t see in front of me.  Nothing!  In a moment, a patch of visibility opens, I can see red lights from the back of another big rig stopped directly in front of me and I think, “This is it…I’m gonna hit him.  I gonna die, if I don’t die, I’m going to have a bad accident.  If I don’t die, someone else may be injured.  If none of these things happen, something else really bad is gonna happen.”

I lock up my brakes hard and swerve the rig around this guy stopped on the highway.

I react quickly, though swerving around the truck into the oncoming lane of traffic in a windstorm of blindness.  Everything loose that was in the sleeper is now with me in the front.   My right mirror smacks hard against the back of his trailer and is folded against the passenger door.  I wheel around the front of his vehicle, crawling forward in brown darkness trying to get off the road as much as I can.  I’m stopped.

I’m O.K…  The road and the wind and the dust, the storm and the howling.  Intense and sustained.  It was very scary.  I prop my phone against the dash, I took pictures and actually have a recording of these events happening with my phone.

This wind storm, I imagined, that it wasn’t like a tornado traveling across the landscape but more like a stationary stream of wind, dust, soil, plant matter, sticks, debris flying in a stream of 70mph sustained winds and 90 mph gusts.  Other vehicles were parked on the side of the road with me.  Every moment there, I was waiting for a collision to occur.  Either from my front or from my rear.  I desperately wanted to drive out of there. Other people were driving through this storm in both directions.  I could not believe what I was seeing!  My desire to leave, kept telling me to go ahead, crawl out. It’s only a mile to the truck stop, you’ll be ok.  Go ahead.

It’s embarrassing to admit that my training now kicked in.  If you can’t see, do not move that truck.  Get off the road, don’t move.  Other trucks would crawl pass me through this darkness. Still, I could not believe what I was seeing.  All I could think was the risk of some other vehicle slamming head on into them.  I imagined I would spend the night there in that storm or until it died down, if it was going to be an hour, a half hour, 3 hours?  I resigned myself to sitting there until conditions improved.

I see lights appear, flashing lights, a spotlight.  A trooper!  A Kansas state trooper, their car crawling towards me.  I couldn’t believe it!  I actually said out loud in a loud voice, “ WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?  WHY ARE YOU IN HERE?  THIS IS CRAZY! “ The trooper slowly drove passed me and just at the end of my trailer, turned around and drove along beside my door.  I looked inside the car and made out what appeared to be a female trooper.  Again I said in a loud voice to no one… “ WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?  ARE YOU CRAZY? “ I was scared for her.  And then it made sense.  I could follow her out.  She came in to guide me and another truck out and that’s just exactly what happened.  I followed her with another truck behind me about 1 mile out of this dust storm, blind and into the clear.  One mile further I pulled over at the truck stop, parked, called my company, reported the incident.  That’s pretty much the story of this near-death experience.

What’s this all about?  I talked about this experience for days and weeks after with those people close to me.  Something of trauma, I continue still to make sense of it.  One take away, perhaps the most important, is to get off the road well in advance of the threat.  DUH….  The intuitive voice that suggested to me I should pull over was there, it was a gentle voice, a quiet voice.  My intuitive voice doesn’t seem to be a match for the voices that say “Go! Go! Go! It’s only just a little farther!  You’ll be alright!  We can do it…” Those voices.  I know the opportunity will come again for me to make the decision whether to drive or stop.  I see trucks rolled over, ripped open, smashed, burned up, wrecked on a regular basis, along with all the four wheeled vehicles.  This is a fact of vehicular life.

A friend of mine has an expression that he uses when we talk about getting delayed from something.  Some obstacle in our path that makes us have to slow down or be late or simply not make it.  The expression is, “Perhaps I am being protected from meaningless harm.” I won’t try to claim that I know what meaningless harm means.  I can talk about preventable harm.  Let’s talk about preventable harm, “Adam, listen to that quiet voice.  You make sure you drive for conditions. Just stop if in doubt, perhaps you are being protected from meaningless, purposeless, preventable, harm.”

A couple days later, I called the Kansas highway patrol and asked about finding and identifying and thanking the trooper for helping me.  I wasn’t able to get the officers’ name.  I called three different times trying to get that information.  I left a message with that areas’ officer in charge of receiving expressions of gratitude for service, the word would be forwarded along.  It’s not really enough.

Along the same path with the girl up in Phillipsburg, tornado warnings, hail, thunderstorms are up.  A watch, warning, set up for an area east of our current location, I have four more hours of clock.  We are heading east, the quiet voice, barely a whisper says, “Stay put, park right here in this nice little town.”  A nanosecond later, the synapses are lighting up, “ Go, Go, Go… drive for another hour, or two or three… you’ll be alright… it’ll be fine…”  The girl is with me.  I hear the quiet voice, we park.

She knows the whole story, the next day she asks me would I have stopped where we did if she wasn’t with me.  Honestly?

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