Joe Buck, Trucker

by Rick Beck

Breaking New Snow

I was forty the first time I broke new snow. You might think about that title for a minute before saying, what took you so long?

Before doing it I might have asked that. I started driving at sixteen and I was behind the wheel as often as possible in all weather and any time of day or night. I didn't have anywhere in particular to go.

I loved driving.

I'm not sure why driving was the one thing I loved when I didn't like much about being sixteen. Once I started driving I didn't want to stop. When I was in my car I was in my element. I took jobs that required me to drive. After driving everything I could get my hands on, I decided to become a trucker and drive from coast to coast.

I can hear you saying, 'With gasoline four bucks a gallon you can't afford to drive far.

No farther than necessary is the answer today. A boy like me could never follow the route I took into trucking, but when I started driving, gas was 29.9 cents a gallon.

Why point nine? Maybe they didn't have a three to put on the signs in front of gas stations. Anyway, gas was 29.9 cents a gallon and so I drove as far as I could get as often as I could.

I could fill up for three bucks. I paid 17.9 cents a gallon once. There was a gas war going on at the time. When gas stations went to war, you could stop at a red light and before the light changed the gas station on your right would drop its price one cent and before the light was green the station on the left dropped its price by two cents a gallon.

I filled up when I had three bucks and if I didn't have three bucks the boys who I drove around did. During gas wars was the best of times. The world was swimming in oil.

At my peak of popularity in high school, because I did drive other boys around, I spent a lot of school days driving around and learning about how to do it safely while getting the most out of the experience.

Teachers may not have appreciated my frequent absences. I was on my way to the seat in a big rig and that required me to know how to drive. I drove and I kept on driving in the years before I became a truck driver.

By that time I'd learn my lessons well. For all the years I spent behind the wheel going to no particular destination, I never had more than a fender bender that resulted in a few dollars to a couple of hundred dollars to repair and in the years I drove I never hurt anyone while I was driving.

I did hurt, probably killed, a beautiful pheasant one night my first year as a trucker while driving my rig on a rural Indiana highway. The bird collided with the front left headlight assembly of my GMC cabover. Because it flew into my headlight I got a quick glimpse of what it was.

I felt bad for the bird until I got the bill for that collision. I knew by the sound that there was no way the bird survived and I had a headlight pointing at the sky.

My beautiful new truck got it's first damage a few months after I bought it. It cost nearly five hundred dollars to get the fender, headlight assembly, and molding repaired. That was one hell of a bird.

That was years after I was out of school but the gas wars were around the time I left high school and was too young to apply to a trucking company to drive a big rig.

It wasn't long after I paid 17.9 cents a gallon that the Arabs turned off the spigot. Gas went to 50.9 cents a gallon over night. Before it was over it went to nearly a buck before the Arabs turned the oil back on the first time. They made their point about supply and demand. They had the supply. We had the demand.

Every day was be nice to Arabs day.

For much of that decade the oil was turned on and off whenever the Arabs decided to turn it on or off, depending on their mood. Gas was never be 29.9 cents a gallon again. The word OPEC became a four letter word.

We actually had a president toward the end of that decade that called OPEC's hand. President Carter put solar panels on the roof at the White House. In a speech to the country he told us, 'By the end of this century we will be getting twenty percent of our energy from renewables.'

You might wonder what happened to that idea.

Ronald Reagan removed the solar panels off the roof at the White House after becoming president. The new president said Carter's idea of using less oil was nonsense.

He replaced that idea with 'Drill, baby, drill.'

Reagan was no sissy. He'd let the people in the next century worry about higher gasoline prices. There was plenty of oil for everyone.

It's nearly fifty years after everyone laughed at President Carter putting solar panels on the roof of the White House, no one is laughing at the idea of renewables any longer. Maybe Carter was smarter than he looked.

With gasoline prices at four bucks a gallon, people might wonder what it has to do with snow. Isn't that where all of this started?

I was giving you deep background and telling you about how it was way back when. Once I started driving a tractor trailer fuel was my biggest expense.

There are two things that every trucker remembers. You remember where you got the best food and you remembered where the cheap fuel was. When you drive a truck you need to know those two things first. The best spots are where the cheap fuel and good food were in the same place.

I wasn't just a trucker. I was an owner operator. That meant I owned my truck. When I bought fuel it came right off the top of my pay for each haul. Nothing got my blood flowing faster than 99.9 cent fuel because of it. There was something about paying less than a buck a gallon that pulled my trigger big time.

A trucker makes money while his wheels are turning. We're paid by the miles we drive. No matter the price of f you pay it. Unless you're rich enough to park your rig and I never knew a trucker who was that rich.

Whenever I saw a 99.9 cent a gallon price for diesel, I was pulling over to get me some of that. The Bingo truck stop at the far end of Wyoming on Route 80, fifty miles from the Utah state line was the most likely fuel stop to have 99.9 cent price. It went with their three buck T-bone steak dinner for truckers.

It didn't take much to get me smiling but I was on the road 24/7 and it was the little things that made my day. I was telling you what it meant to break new snow. It wasn't in Wyoming. I wasn't even heading west at the time. I'd gone to Sheboygan, Wisconsin to pick up a loaded North American trailer that was waiting at North American's lot.

It was winter. I was coming out of Chicago. It was a typical cold overcast winter's day. I called my dispatcher after delivering to Borg Warner earlier. He sent me to Sheboygan to pick up the loaded trailer. It was going to Columbus, Ohio for delivery the next morning at eight a.m.

At three o'clock in the afternoon, I pulled into North American's lot. By four o'clock I'd unhooked my trailer and I backed under the Columbus trailer. I parked my truck so no one could block me in and shut her down and walked to the Fireside Restaurant beside North American's lot.

I was tired. I'd driven into Chicago and parked at the BorgWarner loading dock at three that morning. I climbed into my bunk. The first BorgWarner employees came at six. They invited me inside for coffee and they began unloading automotive parts from their Oklahoma plant. It was a floor load and it took four and a half hours to unload.

I called my dispatcher before leaving BorgWarner at around eleven. It was two and a half hours to Sheboygan once I reached the Interstate where I stopped for a burger.

It was eight to nine hours to Columbus from North American's lot in Sheboygan. I would eat, get in my bunk, because there was no way I was driving through Milwaukee and Chicago during the evening rush. After eating I'd sleep until ten and I'd begin my run which would have me in Columbus to deliver at eight in the morning if the good Lord was willing and the creek didn't rise.

The Fireside was one of those restaurants I looked forward to. I'd been there before and by five I would be ready to hit my bunk after turning the truck on and jacking up the heater.

It wasn't a deep freeze cold but there was low hanging clouds and it was a cold winter's day. Heat was necessary. Five minutes after I got prone I was asleep. It had been a long day and I needed to be five hundred miles down the road by eight the next morning.

At ten my alarm went off. I was up . I slid out of my bunk and into my jeans and cowboy boots. a minute later. This was the point when I start my engine if it wasn't already running.

That's when I found myself looking out at a fresh blanket of snow. I'd seen snow before and it didn't seem like that big a deal at the time. I'd failed to check the weather report or to ask at the restaurant. I had my plan in my head and snow or no snow, I wasn't driving through two major cities during rush hour any time any day.

I'd been worn to a frazzle by the time I got hooked up to the loaded trailer. As a professional driver I knew I needed to sleep before I drove another mile.

It was what it was and I was soon pulling onto the main drag in Sheboygan. The street was wet but it wasn't covered in snow. I didn't give it a second thought. I headed for the Interstate two miles away.

The streets continued to be wet and it looked like three to four inches of fresh snow had fallen. When I turned onto the ramp that led down onto Route 43 that I sopped. The snow was crunching under my wheels. It hadn't been plowed. Chemicals hadn't been put out on 43.

There was snow for as far as I could see and I could see a long way. The sky had become crystal clear and a full moon shined overhead. A million stars were spread out toward the south as I pondered my situation.

I was at a stop halfway down the ramp and I needed a new plan. As far as my eyes could see was a beautiful layer of unbroken snow.

Just where was the highway?

On the right were endless farmer's fields. On the left was a forest of trees that came within ten or twenty feet of the road. Snow covered everything.

Where was the highway? There was no road.

I was there now and I needed to find that highway. The snow was unbroken and now I knew what that meant. I thought I knew what it meant before I encountered it.

I could have sat on that ramp and waited for a snow plow to come along but I had a delivery to make. I was awake and ready for a five hundred mile run. A snow plow might not come along for hours and I didn't have hours.

It was time to find the highway. When I reached the bottom of the ramp, I still had the same problem. The highway was supposed to be right next to the ramp but you couldn't prove it by me.

I was stopped again. What did I do now? If I started driving how long would it take for me to run off the road I couldn't see. I knew this highway was not straight. There were curves and bends as you drove south on 43.

Because of the extra light reflecting off the snow from the now visible full moon, I saw the reflector maybe fifty yards ahead of me. I'd drive straight to that reflector and once there I'd see if I could find the next reflector and so my trip to Columbus started at a crawl.

I drove to that first reflector and I went directly from that reflector to the next one. I could move at ten miles an hour and I made my way southward.

At ten miles an hour, I wouldn't reach Columbus in a week. This was the worst trip I'd ever been on but I kept moving agonizingly slow. I could still stop next to one of those reflectors and wait for someone else to come along, but I couldn't do that. I had to go.

For two hours I went from reflector to reflector. The rolling hills of the farmland were always on my right. From time to time there would be a house at the highest point on the hill beside me at the time. Usually there was one or two lights on in the house and I found myself wondering what was going on inside a nice warm farm house.

I was probably twenty or thirty miles down the road after two hours of going from reflector to reflector when the road on the far side of an overpass was wet but there was no snow on the highway.

Someone had obviously come off that ramp and put down chemicals that melted the snow. It was clear highway form then on. Chicago didn't even have snow and I reached Columbus at eight in the morning instead of six but the mall was right on the Interstate a substantial way from mid town and I drove right off the highway and into the parking lot of the new restaurant.

A crew was waiting to unload me. There was no mention of weather. They went to work unloading my trailer as soon as I opened my back doors. I'd just endured the longest night of my life. This was a load I'd never forget and that is how I found out what breaking new snow meant.

I felt like I'd driven a thousand miles in one stretch. I'd driven less than five hundred. New experiences were mostly interesting if they taught me something but not this one.

I asked a friend who wasn't a truck drive if he'd ever broken new snow. I was about to tell him the story until he said, "All the time."

I looked him over. He was a pretty intelligent guy. I considered him to be way smarter than I was. That's when I lost a little respect for him. I knew by how fast he answered the question, he'd never broken new snow. He had no idea what it meant. I knew what it meant. I'd never forget what it meant and it was an experience you didn't want twice.

If someone asked me that question, I'd start sweating and I'd loosen my collar before saying, 'Scariest damn thing I'd ever done. Take it from me, you never want to do it.'

No, it didn't endanger my life and many things I did as a trucker were dangerous. Read Buffalo Creek. That was something i did that could have gotten me killed. I understood it while I was doing it. It seemed like the thing to do at the time, until I had time to think it over.

Once I cleared that bridge and got up over the crest of the hill, I was shaking. I knew I'd just done the dumbest thing I'd ever done once I thought it over. I'd done some pretty stupid stuff when I was young and invulnerable.

It worked out fine. It could have ended up with me and my truck a hundred feet below that bridge in Buffalo Creek. I never wanted to do anything like it again. I was a professional driver and what I did was not professional.

At any point in that night, when I did break new snow, I could have run off in a ditch and ended up in a ditch. Maybe I would have been late making my delivery. That would have been the worse that could happen.

A full moon and conditions being perfect for me to break new snow, I went ahead and did it but I wouldn't try it again. I did it once and I learned what breaking knew snow was on the longest night of my trucking career.

For all you four-wheelers out there, if you are faced with breaking new snow, don't try it. Pull over and wait for the snow plow to blaze that trail, and remember, keep the shiny side up and the rubber side down.

I'll see you on the flip flop.

Joe Buck

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