Thursday May 8
The pitching of the truck wakes me somewhere past Upsala, Ont. Looking in the mirrors, I can see we’re in the middle of a caravan of seven big trucks making good time on the twisting roads of Highway 17.
Ross prefers radio silence, never flips on the FM stations or the CB. But I’m sure this group of drivers is communicating. They’re traveling fast and fairly close together.
It is a midway ride across the north, a caterpillar with 14 eyes that weaves its way through the black night. Suddenly, Ignace, Ont., appears in a ribbon of neon truck stop lights and Ross pulls up to the pumps. The Peterbilt is thirsty.
One of the drivers in our convoy, a Quebec driver with a cabover Freightliner, pulls up to tell us we have no taillights. This comes as a surprise.
But you can find an apprentice mechanic at 1:00 am in Ignace. “Yepper, I know just the fella,” says the diesel jockey. A baseball-capped young man appears as if by magic, and connects the hydro again in fifteen minutes–the problem is a misfit light cord. The baseball hat goes back to watching television with a few extra bucks in his pocket.
It’s my drive to Kenora and Ross takes the bunk. I’m not used to long distance driving, my legs are cramping from spending long hours in the same position. It would be great if truckers could ride a treadmill or stationary bicycle as they drive. A small survey conducted by two nurses in Cambridge, Ont. showed that 81% of truck drivers are overweight, 60% don’t get enough exercise, 34% have high blood pressure, and 31% smoke. Maybe the stationary bicycle could charge some sort of auxiliary life support equipment.
We’ve twisted the light pods so they’re working a little better how, though the headlights are still far from effective. I stop to piss outside of Dryden. It’s a dark night and very still, only the occasional roar of a semi flying by and Dopplering into the engulfing blackness.
Most teams switch roles every four or five hours. But Ross and I are changing quicker–about every three. Ross takes the wheel at Kenora and I nod off.
I startle myself away just as the lights of Winnipeg come into sight. A light rain is misting as Ross is passing a B-train. “I’m tired,” Ross says, wrist propped on top of the gearshift. “I was thinking of curling up on the floor.” He steers us to the outskirts of Winnipeg and a welcoming Husky parking lot.
Ross takes the bunk while I go for take out coffee, brownies, a Winnipeg Free Press. The rain is smattering heavier as I pull out of the service centre, and promptly miss the bypass, snacking on brownies. It’s all right, I tell myself. How often do you get to see downtown Winnipeg at 5:00am?
The bakery trucks and cars are beginning to swell the streets, a pre-dawn restlessness washes across the city. I take Broadway and then Portage, passing only a block from the provincial legislature. After about 30 traffic lights, I can spot an inspection station in the distance. But the officers are busy with a customer. No flashing lights for us.
Ross awakes before dawn and we stop for breakfast at the Husky in Brandon, Man. Then, we back pedal to the local Kenworth dealer to get the lights repaired. One of the mechanics works on the headlights, while Ross pops open the side door so the rest of the shop can admire the antique cars.
Evidently, one of the headlights was installed upside down, and the other has a short that’s drawing three volts. The bill is $52, but Ross is happy: the dealership buys three cases of Boot Brushes and he writes up a receipt on a blank sheet of paper. Every Boot Brush sale is a small victory for him.
It’s Ross’ turn to take the wheel now. At Broadview, Saskatchewan, he shows me where he and his dad had to unhook the trailer so they could get under a low bridge. They dragged the trailer with a chain by the dolly wheels (in those days dolly wheels really were wheels).
“There was a little bit of pavement around Winnipeg, and a little bit around Regina,” says Ross. “Depending on what time of the year it was, you could run into sections that were gumbo–mud up to the axles and it would be impossible to steer.”
We make the customary stop at the Regina Husky. I talk to three big men, farm machinery haulers, in the parking lot. They’re enthusiastic about trucking in Saskatchewan (this was before the BSE scare). “We’re busy as hell,” says Harvey Barsi, tightening down a strap on his float trailer. “I’ve got all the work I can handle.”
Inside, however, Ross is unable to sell any Boot Brushes to the truculent manager. “I’d be willing to buy some fuel if you’d take a case or two.” he says. “No,” says the manager, shaking his head.
A comedian once said, “The Prairies give a whole new meaning to cruise control.” But the land grows hillier and increasingly saline as we vector westward. A solitary red tailed hawk drifting over the valleys might be a descendent of the same one that watched the Mackie trucks roll through here 50 years ago.
Ross’ decision not to get fuel in Regina leaves the gauge dangling on E by the time we reach a Husky in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
We both eat quickly. I have the last portion of farmer’s sausage and immediately regret it. Ross, meanwhile, fumbles with his cell phone–this is an ongoing ritual and takes him at least an hour per day, sometimes two or three hours. Each time he listens to his long list of messages and meticulously resaves them.
Driving the TransCanada through Alberta is a thrill for me, especially with the 110 km speed limit. We pass giant feeder calf and stockyard operations. As we climb higher, there is evidence of a serious May storm that just tore across here, a few days ago. The air is warm, but long ribs of snowdrifts are still clinging to the land.
The self-weigh inspection station before Calgary leaves us scratching our heads. “What do you do if you’re overweight,” asks Ross. “Arrest yourself?”
Calgary is another one of those cities that entwines itself with the Trans Canada–there is no bypass. We park beside a Travelodge at the west end of town while Ross checks prices.
But cheaper is not better tonight. Our room is in the back alley besides a row of dumpsters. The shower leaks and water rolls across the floor into the carpet. It doesn’t matter. Ross is asleep before the lights are off.
Friday May 9
Ross illegally parks in front of a Calgary pancake house to start the day. We chow down on a small stack each, fueling for our climb into the mountains.
We share the highway with sad-eyed commuters and contractors, and the occasionally SUV with skis strapped on top. Light snow is powdering down, leaving a white coat on the fields and horses. The landscape looks like an Ian Tyson song.
Ross turns off the TransCanada at Banff and takes Highway 93 southwest where it winds through Marble Canyon and joins up with the Kootenay River. The panoramas are spectacular, with some very steep, but short declines, and equally abrupt runaway lanes that crawl up the sides of adjacent cliffs.
For eons, Plains Indians would hike weeks to “take the baths” at Radium Hot Springs, but truckers have little time for spas. Our mission is to deliver a dirt bike to a young man at the Greyhound station in Invermere. Mountain goats chewing on the ditch grass beside the road don’t even look up as we wind in and out of the village.
Leaving Invermere, there is no quick way across the mountains to Vernon. We’re forced to back track to Golden, BC. and take Rogers Pass.
Back on the Trans Canada, Ross points to a few places, formerly mom and pop truck stops, where drivers would meet during their cross-continent peregrinations. By his accounts, some of them were wild men who engaged in a wide range of activities from time to time.
But they were truck drivers, pure and simple. They didn’t consider themselves outlaws, or cowboys or sailors. Their uniforms were peaked hats, bomber jackets and pressed pants. They drove hard and partied hard, romancing their way from one corner of the country to the other.
It’s late afternoon by the time we connect with the customers in Vernon. The hired hand, Bud, meets us by the side of the road and leads us into the mountains–way up into the mountains. With a little dexterity, Ross swings the trailer around in a laneway and has us facing the right way for our descent.
Neither the Plymouth nor the Corvette will start, so we push both of them off with some help from admiring teenagers. The new owner of the Corvette also owns a cheese factory and is apparently quite successful. The car is a birthday gift from his sister. He bought the Plymouth as an after thought when he was in Napoleon, Ohio looking at the Corvette.
Before we depart, Bud gives us directions to a bar in town that should serve good grub. It’s Friday afternoon at the Longhorn in Vernon and some of the locals are whooping it up (their dogs are waiting for them in pickup trucks outside). Ross drinks a near-beer (0.5%) and we have salad and fries. Some kind of provincial kino game takes place on an overhead screed every 15 minutes. People buy tickets but no one seems to win.
I’m happy to drive the next stretch into Kelowna. I picked apples there in 1980, and Stockwell Day used the Okanagan as a back drop when he rode up in a jet ski and delivered a speech in a wet suit, after he became Alliance leader.
But the view from the highway is dismal: heavy traffic, fast food outlets, and box stores. John Steinbeck observed that truckers travel across the land but are not part of it. Rather, ours is a world of lachrymose sunsets. The people we come in contact with are only peripheral and fleeting. I turn the Peterbilt west towards Aspen Grove and Merritt as the last rays of sunlight filter through the Rockies.
My chance to run the mountains comes at night. With so little weight, I hardly feel rushed down the grades. Only once does Ross warn me to lay off on a steep decline, otherwise the down slopes are an easy sweep. The Cat engine works harder on the up grades but never breaks a sweat.
We pull off the highway at Merritt and park in a lumber yard. It’s a little after 10:00 pm. This is the best motel on the trip: fridge, micro, extra coffee. Ross catches up on a week of newspapers: Globe and Mails, Free Presses, Suns and Provinces. But not for long. These are well-slept nights.
Saturday May 10
When I awake Ross is in the shower. I mark up the log books and sip coffee, while Ross fires up the Pete and does the circle check.
At the wheel, Ross is torn between taking the old canyon road through the Fraser Valley or the Coquihalla toll route. Anxious to get to Vancouver, he opts for the high road. The Coke (as truckers call it) cuts two to three hours driving time and a lot of headaches. But the real driving is on the old road Ross tells me. “I could show you places,” he says.
The Coquihalla Highway is one of the world’s most modern highways and very pleasant to drive. It glides from one mountain shoulder to another, and kisses a few clouds along the way. Its altitude alone makes it susceptible to sudden weather changes. But our trip is clear sailing and worth the $20 toll.
We’ve run almost 5,000 kms without seeing an open inspection station, but the one outside of Hope invites us in to get weighed. Just a formality, we’re empty now. The inspector nods to me from behind a sheet of plate glass. It’s Saturday and he probably wishes he weren’t working.
Ross wants to get the truck washed, and his wish is answered at Lickman’s Esso in Chilliwack. Within the same block, there are two truck washes and a good restaurant. Ross forks out $100 for the wash and I go for coffee.
Gloria’s Truck Stop, arguably, might be one of the best truck restaurants in Canada. The decor is simple: drivers sit around formica tables and vinyl upholstered chairs. Newspaper posters of the Vancouver Canucks are taped to the walls.
But the food is wholesome and plentiful. It has that home-cooked touch that’s missing from the chain of truck restaurants that proliferate throughout the west.
Gloria Byerlay is a small woman of Costa Rican descent. She has a faint, downy mustache on her upper lip. Fourteen years as a truck stop owner have taught her a thing or two about truck drivers.
“Truckers are easy to please,” she says. “Give them good portions at a good price.” That and 14 hour work days, seven days a week, she adds.
Meanwhile, Ross has found one of his drivers parked in the back row of the truck plaza. With over a hundred brokers scattered across the continent, it’s not really surprising to find one of his teams bunking in Chilliwack, but Patrick and Phyllis Skinner, out of St. John’s, Nfld., are a good catch.
They look crisp as they enter the restaurant. Patrick has shaved and put on a clean shirt. At 51 years of age he has a well-defined belly and a shock of blond hair that he sweeps back over his thinning pate. Phyllis 49, is shorter and lighter. She doesn’t drive but handles all the bookkeeping and inventory records, as well as the navigating. The two have been trucking together for more than five years.
“We left home on January 12. That was five months ago,” says Phyllis pouring coffee.
“In my mind I’m always heading home,” says Patrick. “Vancouver is a about as far west as you can go, so we have to be going home from here.”
The couple has three children and seven grandkids. Phyllis admits that she misses being away for long periods. “But after about a week with the grandkids I’m ready to go back out again,” she adds.
Washed and rinsed, our Peterbilt is ready for the last leg of our journey. Phyllis hands me a poem she’s written and I shove it in my pocket.
The car we are picking up in Abbotsford is a bronze 1967 Mustang GT heading back to Ontario. My car carrier training (I was a once a trainee at Maris Transport in Oakville) is finally getting some use. Sensitive to the age of the frame, we opt for nylon tie-down straps instead of the steel hooks.
Back on the highway, we’re very close to Vancouver, now. My son Matthew, who now lives in Vancouver, is waiting for me at New Westminster. I’m excited about spending some time in this new city and reconnecting with my 23 year old son whom I haven’t seen in half a year.
The phone rings and Ross answers. “Grandpa, where are you?” It’s his grandson Shawn. In trucking, timing is everything. Shawn, teamed with a Greg Heasman, a Durham Region cop who also drives for Mackie, are only a kilometer behind us. They’re hauling displays for a Sony electronics show at the Vancouver Airport Ramada Inn.
Awkwardly, the two trucks have a short reunion on the shoulder just before the next off ramp. I quickly explain where we’re meeting my son.
Ten minutes later we meet Matthew at the Burnett exit. I take a picture of the bunch of them. Then we shake hands and separate. Ross and the other truck continue to the airport blaring their air horns, while my son and I walk along the bridge.
Ross will head back to Ontario in a couple of days via Emerson, Manitoba where he has a couple of cars waiting to be picked up in Green Bay, Wisc. I’ve got a few days of research to do in Vancouver and then I’ll fly back to Toronto on Thursday, beating Ross home by a full day.
It’s not until later that evening that I find Phyllis’ poem in my pocket. It’s a pleasant surprise, although a thread of sadness runs through it. It seems like a good way to end the journey.
By Phyllis Skinner
My truck is my livelihood, I shall always want.
It maketh me to lie down in dirty truck stops.
It leadeth me beside busy highways.
It destroyeth my soul.
It leadeth me down paths of unrighteousness for survival sake.
“Yeah,” though I drive through the valley of deer and moose,
I will fear no evil for thou art with me.
For my fender defends me.
My grill and my bunk, they comfort me.
They preparest a table for me at many restaurants.
They anointed my food with grease.
My blood boileth over.
Surely, payments and headaches will follow me
All the days of my life.
And I shall dwell behind a steering wheel forever and ever.
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