Celebrating Christmas Trucker-style

Chicago, Illinois

Having successfully completed our own voyage into Rudolph-required territory for Santa, Greg with his ever-whitening beard is sleeping, and snoring, in front of the fireplace.

We are at a DoubleTree about six miles from the company’s Chicago terminal. The fireplace is on WGN- TV. TV stations in the big cities play a continuous loop of a fireplace from midnight to noon on Christmas Day. It’s a Christmas staple for Manhattanites, most of whom do not have stoves, let alone fireplaces.

You’ll remember that we were pulling a load from Portland, Oregon to Chicago, Illinois along the northern route of I-94 and thankful for every ounce of its 27,000 pound weight.

Feet of snow were dropping to the south on I-90, I-80 and I-70 from Salt Lake City, Utah to Denver, Colorado and Rapid City, South Dakota. The nasty weather was heading to Chicago, snow and freezing rain south through Wisconsin to Illinois, we would collide with the weather – somewhere. Passing through blowing snow, fog and freezing rain in Beach, North Dakota we got the first word of a blizzard behind us that would hit North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota Christmas Eve before heading into Canada.

Greg said the six hours out of Minneapolis was the worst winter driving he’s ever experienced. Snow obliterated the lane ways on the Interstate. Traffic was virtually single lane. Plows had not cleared the hammer lane. He stopped several times to climb on the hood to bang the ice off the wiper blades.

His neck, back and hips were starting to ache from grasping the steering wheel for hours and pressing the hammer down, no cruise control in these conditions. Relief was around the corner. Greg had been driving between 35 mph and 60 mph. He had just taken the truck back up to 60 mph, as he was thinking it was too fast for these conditions, a yellow Kenworth roared around him in the hammer lane. Greg dropped his speed. He said he had a flash that that was not going to end well. Not five minutes later, he crested the hill to see a half dozen cars with their four-ways flashing. He put on his four-way flashers coming to a stop. The change in the truck speed woke me, I heard the CB crackling, I unbuckled the cargo netting from the bunk and snapped open the curtain. We were 500 feet from a yellow Kenworth tractor and trailer. The rear of the trailer lodged in the ditch, tractor wheels up, shoulder-to-shoulder across the Interstate.

“We’ll be here awhile,” Greg deadpanned.

Like you always say mom, good luck, bad luck, who’s to say. Not that we take pleasure in the misfortune of other truck drivers, because we don’t. Winter driving in a big rig as a million-miler told us last year is all about patience and luck. But Greg needed a break and there was no real reason and no place to stop. Now we had a reason and a place. No one was hurt.

It took an hour and a half for the police and the tow truck to unhook the tractor and push the trailer back into the ditch to allow traffic flow. In that time, Greg ate his turkey, brie, spinach and cranberry sandwiches, relaxed in the passenger seat.

I woke at 0400 as he arrived at the terminal. The freezing rain had given away to rain, the roads were salted.

At the terminal we quickly switched trailers and drivers for our Santa load for Christmas Eve delivery that one no one wanted to take to Omaha, Nebraska. The rain followed me to Des Moines, Iowa. Crossing into Iowa the flashing Department of Transportation signs warned – Severe Snowstorm until 0600 SATURDAY (Boxing Day) Northern Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. This was the storm that was following us on Wednesday. We had now looped around and were driving into the southern edge.

Thirty miles past Des Moines, 90 miles from Omaha the temperature dropped from 33 degrees to 22 in half an hour then to 19. We were on the edge of the blizzard. The wind picked up. We were light, 10,000 pounds. Snow began to accumulate on the road, cars were ditched from the storm the day before, a big truck in front of me pulled out to pass the truck in front of him then changed his mind. The big truck behind me pulled out to pass me then changed his mind.

I noticed we were ten trucks in a convoy, driving 40 mph with 14 seconds following distance between us. I thought, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. That’s how we drove the final miles. When we arrived in Omaha, the wind was gusting to 30 mph, the temperature was 18 degrees, the snow stung my face when I climbed out of the tractor to lower the landing gear after docking.

As truck drivers we see places, few others do. While were were driving to Omaha, we actually dropped our trailer in Carter Lake, Iowa, which could be a suburb of Omaha or maybe Council Bluffs or a really old community that didn’t get devoured by either neighbor. Being Canadian, we’ve been intrigued by an American phenomenon, which makes total sense, cities are developed around rivers. Cities in different states are butted up to each other around the river. Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri is the most well-known example. But there’s Council Bluffs, Iowa and Omaha, Nebrasksa.

We left I-480 at exit 3 into a deserted industrial section. Blowing snow, poor visibility, a couple of people clutching sleeping bag coats, the only open business, payday loans. Desolate. We ambled through town and saw that once upon a time this was a happening place and it is trying to remake itself. A new townhouse development was across the street from a car wrecking yard. A stately brick apartment building looked like it had once been a sanitorium or boarding house. Wide verandas and bay windows converted to today’s housing. Across the street the Con Agra plant. Another block down The Sherman a turn of the century style, white brick hotel. The one and two-story boarded up buildings had that old west design flare.

The two guys at the terminal were waiting because their customers were waiting. We thought it best to arrive late and on all 18 wheels, I said. He laughed.

We hooked an empty trailer and headed back. Blowing snow mixed with freezing rain. Looney four-wheelers out with almost flat tires, bouncing from side-to-side in their lanes, one nut drifted to his driver side narrowly missing grazing our passenger side. Greg stopped at the rest area at Mile Marker 80 to bang the windshield wipers and the entire driver side of the tractor and trailer were encased in ice including the side mirrors and hood mirror.

I couldn’t look anymore. I went to bed. He plowed through at 35 mph. Des Moines was treacherous, he continued eastward on I-80. Fifty miles later the snow gave way to rain and heavy winds. Finally it was Chicago.

“Merry Christmas sweetheart,” he said when he pulled the brakes. “I think we should go to the DoubleTree for the day. (My new favorite hotel.) The trucker channel says if you don’t have to drive south through Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas DON’T. It’s $55 for the night.” Yahoo! Another unexpected Christmas.

Our route to Los Angeles is through the winter zone, Chicago south to St. Louis, west to Tulsa and Oklahoma City angling southwest to Amarillo, Texas, Flagstaff, Arizona, Barstow, California and into Los Angeles. We have lots of time on the load, it must arrive by Monday, the 28th at 1600 ET. It’s a 36 hour drive. If we leave at 1600 this afternoon we have 72 hours to make the trip.

Not only are we ducking, working and racing against the weather, we’re in a race with the Hilton Honors card. If we can get 28 stays in by December 31st, we will have Diamond VIP status, which among other things includes breakfast and internet and will make our lives much easier in 2010 with our hotel stays. Christmas Day is Stay 26. In LA, we’ll stay in a Hilton on the 28th and move to a different hotel for the 29th making that stay number 28.

We’ve ate a warm and gooey Welcome Chocol
ate Chip Cookie, a Christmas Day steaming shower followed by thick juicy towels – we walked into the room and immediately flicked on the weather channel, we are truckers, weather is paramount, then we found the fireplace channel – Greg is enjoying a non-moving sleep in a king size bed with crisp linen and a down quilt. Continental breakfast will be served at 0800 ET in a festive lobby decorated with two Christmas trees. I’ll pad down in my sheepskin slippers and flannelette plaid pajamas for a coffee and milk. The slippers and the pajamas are my comfort things, what I need to make me feel like I’m home wherever we are.

When Greg wakes up he’ll have his stocking waiting in front of the fire stuffed with an iced Rice Crispie square in the shape of a Christmas tree and scratch and win lottery tickets. From the truck salmon lox, fragrant, crimson strawberries and raspberries and from the hotel continental breakfast bagels and cream cheese. I had them fill his thermos with fresh coffee.

We’ll leave this afternoon at 1600 for Los Angeles.

We’re thinking of all of you.

Merry Christmas.

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