One of the best descriptions I have ever heard for the truck-driving profession included these words: "Hours and hours of pure boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror!"
And it's true. That pretty much describes the job, especially for over-the-road drivers who spend their days, nights and weekends crisscrossing the country, hauling whatever it is that needs to be moved from Point A to Point B.
Most of my truck driving was done in the days before GPS tracking and electronic logbooks, at a time when records of time driving and working were charted out in duplicate on a paper logbook or two. In fact, much of my driving was done in the days when our only contact with dispatch was through daily calls from a phone booth. But, over the years, we started carrying pagers telling us when to call and then cell phones so we could call or be called anytime.
Even though we had cell phones in my last years of driving big rigs, we still used paper maps to find the best routes and to avoid those highways with hazards like weight-restricted and low-clearance bridges. Those maps didn't necessarily warn us of road construction, bridges out, or even sections of roads without pavement.
Back in those days, I could leave my terminal and load frozen beef and pork in northeast Nebraska on Monday afternoon, deliver in St. Paul, Minn., and numerous stops along the way to East Grand Forks, Minn., on Tuesday, and sometimes load bulk potatoes in North Dakota near the Canadian border yet late in the day and deliver them Wednesday afternoon in Topeka, Kan., and still get back to northeast Nebraska late that night.
Loading bulk potatoes to be made into potato chips was an interesting process. You told the farmer how much weight you could carry and he drew lines on the inside wall of your trailer and then, with a long conveyor system, filled it up to the line from front to back, adding some boards in the back to keep the spuds from rolling out until you could close the doors. Then, when you visited the scales and found you were overweight on the drive axles or trailer axles, you often had to do a few quick stops going forward or backward to shift the load a bit and get legal.
The loads had to be temperature controlled too, often using the refrigeration unit to keep the temperature at 38 degrees inside when the outside temperature was 10-20 degrees below zero.
When you arrived at the potato chip company, a few sample potatoes were fried to see if they made good chips. If the spuds met specifications, the whole truck and trailer were tipped up on a hydraulic ramp to allow the potatoes to roll out of the back of the trailer and onto conveyor belts. If the spuds didn't meet the specs, it was on to a company manufacturing hash browns.
Well, after being awake and working for 24 hours or so but due in Topeka the next day, the drive from northern North Dakota to the middle of eastern Kansas at night was one of those hours and hours of pure boredom experiences. My route took me south on U.S. 81 at Watertown, S.D., and it was cold outside and very dark on that highway somewhere in the middle of nowhere. No one else was foolish enough to be out on the two-laner in the middle of the night. It was just me and that truckload of potatoes.
Yes, I was bored and fighting sleep as I trucked along in that old Freightliner cab-over, riding on steel leaf springs. The suspension, from the days before air-ride tractors were a common thing, helped keep me awake since every crack in the road was amplified into a jolt that would have thrown me from my seat if it was not for being strapped down with a lap belt.
It was then, during one of those dark, late-night hours of pure boredom, that I saw a sign that I thought said, "Pavement Ends."
I was sure I must have been seeing things since I was on a U.S. Highway and the pavement on U.S. Highways doesn't just end. But I found out in a matter of seconds the warning was true as the cab of my truck began to bounce up and down on this one-lane dirt path, passing between bodies of water on both sides.
All I could see in my headlights were all these water shorebirds flying up on both sides of my truck. I don't know if they were gulls, terns, pelicans, or what because I was hanging onto the steering wheel for my life and trying to get that truckload of potatoes slowed down before I learned if that U.S. Highway emptied into the drink.
Fortunately for me, and the potato chip company in Topeka, the pavement started up again almost as suddenly as it had disappeared. My truck finally stopped bouncing and, after a mile or two, my heart quit pounding. Needless to say, I was wide awake for the next 100 miles or more. I delivered that load of potatoes late that afternoon and even made it home late that night.
It was just one of those many truck-driving trips with hours and hours of pure boredom interrupted by a few moments of sheer terror. I can't say for sure, but I'm guessing all those birds I scared up as I bounced past them on that dirt path had a few moments of sheer terror too!
Randy Moll is the weeklies editor for Northwest Arkansas Newspapers LLC. He can be contacted by email at [email protected]. Opinions expressed are those of the author.