Billowing Smoke and Tornado Winds

Markham, Ontario, Canada

We left Louisville, Kentucky the same way we arrived. In a vortex of black.

Smoke. We arrived in Louisville with black, billowing smoke pouring from the exhaust pipe, trailing behind us, it made some four-wheelers think twice about passing us, but not thick enough that it didn’t keep everyone off our tail.

It started Monday night, Greg not sure if it was black or white smoke trailing him – either is a problem, black is worse. By Tuesday afternoon, I knew it was black smoke.  Our dispatch had us dropping our load in Louisville, picking up another to put us in New Jersey Thursday morning, 63 miles from the Cummins dealership we visited last year.

“I made an executive decision,” Greg said when I opened the sleeper beberth curtain at 0300. “We’ll go to Cummins in Louisville. I told dispatch to cancel the next load. It’s crazy to try to make it to New Jersey.” He had spent the night fretting that someone would call the cops about the black bomb driving down the Interstate or a DoT officer would pull him over and write hundreds of dollars of tickets. So worried, that he flipped the cruise up to 65 mph, much faster than we drive, to get to Louisville ASAP.

We knew the problem — we, meaning MacGyver, has been in truck engineering systems school for three years — we didn’t know the price tag, like I said, you can count it, shit happens. In addition to blowing black smoke, our exhaust temperature, which usually runs about 300 degrees was stuck in the 12 o’clock position at 900 degrees. The boost gauge, which tells us how much power the engine is throwing was hovering near zero. Usually the two gauges run about the same level. And the in-cab, instant fuel-mileage gauge was showing a drop in fuel mileage even at 58 mph with less than 5,000 pounds in our trailer.

It spelled E-G-R, also known as M-O-N-E-Y and trouble for truckers. The E-G-R, Exhaust Gas Recirculation valve, is part of the high-tech emissions control system built into diesel truck engines since 2004. The systems are mandated by governments, aren’t yet all that well designed, break down often and cost a fortune to maintain because they are delicate and temperamental. And exactly the wrong technology for diesel engines. Diesel engineers says the engines are designed to expel exhaust, not have it recirculated.

To add insult to the injury, we were technically out of business. When a car breaks down, the driver gets a rental, hops on the bus, grabs her bike, even hitchhikes and goes to work. When we’re broken down, there is no job. Without a tractor, we are not truckers. This could be a financial tragedy in terms of lost work as well as cost of repairs.

Kenny, our mechanic at Cummins, thought it “pretty good” that our EGR valve had lasted 475,000 miles. “I’ve replaced a lot a whole bunch sooner,” he said.

The EGR valve — not much bigger than a loaf of artisan-baked grain bread, eight inches by four inches — was black, caked in soot. The back of the tractor was caked in soot, there was so much soot blowing from the engine that the seal and lights on the back of the trailer, 53 feet behind the exhaust was black.

While we don’t like to plan these things, we will go back to Louisville Cummins if we need work. Black Beauty was five hours in the shop from the minute I pulled in the drive way to the minute I pulled out. Kenny answered questions, we felt confidence in him. The price tag, $1,213. We were thrilled. Cheap by diesel engine standards.

My only complaint with Cummins was the sign to service was at Ferrari-eye level and so small that I pulled into the wrong driveway and had to get a guy to hold traffic so I could back onto the roadway for the second attempt at the entrance. The service sign inside the shop was three times bigger — for the staff!

Back on the Interstate, kicked up to 60 mph, instantly, she was performing. No smoke, no rumbles, the fuel mileage popped up. Reconnected to the trailer at the FedEx Freight yard we were about to pull out when the skies darkened and a siren sounded. We quickly realized, when we saw people scurrying inside, it was a tornado warning. Greg popped open the Radarscope on the iPad and sure enough, a line of tornados, a few miles north of us cutting a swath through the center of Louisville. Damage to the fairgrounds and Churchill Downs was reported. We waited an hour through three siren alerts and decided we could skirt the southern edge onto I-64 and head east and south to Knoxville.

The sky was blacker than night on our left side, black like forest fire smoke black and on our right side, daylight still in the sky and bright. The streets surprisingly empty. Me watching the line of tornados on the radar scope, Greg behind the wheel, for the second time in 24 hours, he is hammer down at 65.

“Let’s get out of here,” he says, taking the ramp on to I-64 heading to Simpsonville, Kentucky. We followed the edge of the black skyline for five miles, the highway gradually dipped south, more miles between us and Louisville and in 15 minutes, we were in a different weather land.

We slipped into Canada early Friday morning, 0600, crossing the Peace Bridge from Buffalo, New York to Fort Erie, Ontario, not a truck or car in sight, ghosting across at 20 mph taking in the view. Within two minutes of stopping at the Canada Customs window, in my side view mirror a half dozen trucks pulled up behind me, the rush of the day had started.

Here I sit at the UltraMar truck stop at exit 5 on Queen Elizabeth Way, the QEW to folks here. I’ll leave in an hour for delivery and then we have a weekend in Canada.

A long time friend of Greg’s is celebrating her 50th birthday Saturday night in Ottawa. We’ll rent a car and drive north from Toronto into the wilderness, across miles and miles of increasingly stunted trees and out of nowhere, a city of a million people will suddenly pop up. It’s Ottawa, Canada’s capital.

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