Back to what I know best, trucking history. Looks like my friend William “Diesel Gypsy” Weatherstone has got his site up and working again. Trucking stories from all over the world on this site–highly recommended! www.thedieselgypsy.com/
The following is from a trip I took with Ross Mackie in April 2002, I think it was. Things have changed a bit since then. Ross is not so active in the business these days, though he still puts in regular appearances. We always talked about taking a truck trip to the east coast to complement our journey to the west, but if we do it, I’ll have to drive. Ross has given up his Class A licence. Also, one of the characters in this story has passed on, Rudy up in Thunder Bay who was a real gentleman and a great truck driver. I’ll run the second part next week.
Travels with an Old Bedbug by Harry Rudolfs
I jumped at the chance to ride across most of Canada with Ross Mackie. Pioneer trucker is too narrow a term for him. The straw-haired patriarch of Mackie Moving Systems of Oshawa, Ont. has a long list of industry firsts: first Canadian carrier to run into Mexico (seven years ahead of NAFTA); first Canadian moving company to offer air ride trailers; first in the country with an enclosed car carrier. As well, in 1987, his firm was chosen by General Motors to set up a logistics network that eventually spanned thirteen plants in six countries on two continents.
But most of all, Ross is a good driving companion and an expert yarn-spinner. His crackling, dry wit cuts like a chain saw. His blue eyes sparkle when he talks about the wild old days of trucking. This is worth more than a free ride to Vancouver for me; the man is a driving history book.
At 68 years of age, the diminutive CEO can still hop around the upper deck of a car carrier. He keeps his AZ licence active and takes the occasional road trip to remind himself why he’s in business. A few months ago he hauled Frederick Eaton’s Bentley back from Florida teamed with his 23 year old grandson Shawn–the fifth generation of trucking Mackie.
Ross hasn’t driven to Vancouver in a dozen years. But his reasons for making this trip run deeper: he wants to recreate a journey he took with his grandpa and father, just over fifty years ago.
In the early summer of 1951, two trucks left Charlie Mackie’s Oshawa barn/warehouse loaded with furniture for Calgary and Vancouver. Grandpa Charlie and a hired man, Lloyd Simcock, drove a three-ton Chev straight truck with a 20 foot box. Ross and his father Merle followed in a Chevrolet tractor pulling the pride of the Mackie fleet–a 28- foot Trailmobile trailer.
This was a liminal time in trucking history. Extra-provincial trucking was still in its infancy. Some general freight was moving over the road, and a few bedbugs (furniture haulers) were making some long distance forays across the country. But for the most part, almost everything being shipped across western Canada, including household furniture, was moving by rail.
After unloading the first truck in Calgary, Grandpa Charlie and Lloyd turned for home, while Ross and his father continued to Vancouver. Ross remembers a harrowing ride through the Rockies. Most of the passes were single lane with treacherous switchbacks. If you met a truck coming the other way, one of you had to back up to a “cutout”–a wider section of road where the two vehicles could squeeze by each other. The two chugged through the towns of Creston, Trail and Rossland. Their little truck with its 248 cu. inch gasoline engine was badly underpowered and struggled on every grade.
Merle lost the brakes descending Anarchist Peak into Osoyoos. The drums over-heated and the truck rolled halfway through town before he could get it stopped. A sweat-soaked father turned to his son. “When we get to Vancouver, let’s sell the truck and take the train back.”
Fortunately, as it turns out, no one in Vancouver wanted to buy the little tractor. After making their delivery, they found another load of furniture going back to Ontario. The rest, as they say, is trucking history. “We were the Flintstones,” says Ross with a wink. “But we done all right.”
Tuesday May 6
We’d planned to leave Mackie’s Oshawa terminal by noon, but at 2:00 pm Ross is still juggling a multitude of tasks. He stops to talk to the plant electrician–then answers the wall phone in the dispatch office. On his way to check on a trailer in the paint bay, he confers with a long-time driver fueling at the pumps.
It’s taken weeks to put this trip together. Bob Fraser, a 36 year company veteran on medical leave, has lent us his 2000 Peterbilt. It’s a 379 model with only 460,000 kms. Ross has had the unit hurriedly certified and quarter-plated. With almost perfect timing, a load of classic and antique cars for British Columbia materialized in the warehouse just last week.
And what delicious cargo it is. I watch a crew from the warehouse strap a 1963 Corvette to the enclosed car carrier’s upper deck. Next, they roll in a 1937 Plymouth, and a 55 Chevy bound for Thunder Bay. A hacked-up dirt bike rounds out the load.
The last thing Ross and I have to do in Oshawa is handbomb a dozen cases of Boot Brushes into the trailer. The aluminum-backed brushes are a personal crusade for Ross Mackie–he’s a partner with the inventor, Steve Shermeto, also a company driver. The brushes are bolted upside down to a truck’s steps and are a popular item with owner operators.
What started as simple idea on a dusty trip to Mexico has turned into a 12 year business venture for the two men, and spawned a couple of copy cat imitators. “We’ve sold over 500,000,” says Ross, shutting the side door of the trailer. “Our biggest customer is Paccar.” And I get the feeling he wants to sell a few more on the way to Vancouver.
Clutching two logbooks, Ross climbs into the cab and settles behind the wheel of the Peterbilt. At 4:30 pm, unbelievably it seems, we’re rolling towards Vancouver.
It matters little that Thickson Road is choked with homebound commuter traffic. The start of any road trip is fueled by adrenaline and nervous expectation. The Cat engine pulls us gently over the over the hillocks of Durham County. The afternoon sun is shining divinely over the pastoral landscape.
But the gravitational pull of the GTA is strong. Ross slides to the shoulder just south of Highway 12 so he can make two last phone calls. The first one is to his girlfriend Colleen in Ajax–to explain, again, why he is going to Vancouver and when he’ll be back. “I love you, too,” he sings. The second call is to a “movie guy” who’s awaiting delivery of a couple of Hummer trucks at a film shoot in Toronto. “I’ve worked with this guy for years,” says Ross. “I want to keep him happy.”
Some truckers will tell you that they drive for the sunsets. And rounding the rim of Lake Simcoe we’re in for a great one. The cumulous clouds on the horizon burst into spectacular violet and crimson blossoms. Very little traffic now–only the occasional gambler on the way to an evening at Casino Rama, or a gravel hauler making a last run back to the pit.
At the narrows between Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching we pass a Tim Horton’s and the skeleton of a fish weir that was used by Natives for thousands of years. The sticks from the ancient crib are still visible through the water. About 400 years ago, French explorer Samuel de Champlain spent a weekend in Orillia. We slow down only enough to take the ramp for Highway 11.
This is Yonge Street, the longest street in the world, and the extension of an old Indian trail that was blazed by Governor Simcoe’s Queen’s Own Rangers over two centuries ago. The pink granite rock faces of are welcoming but too-familiar: Muskoka is southern Ontario’s cottage playground. We roll past the exits for Gravenhurst and Bracebridge. Near Huntsville, Ross spots a Swiss Chalet and doubles back.
There is still some light, so he pulls on coveralls and grabs a flashlight. “I’m worried about that Corvette sitting close to the roof,” he says climbing inside the trailer. “If things come loose, they do it within the first 100 miles.”
We share the dining room with two local families dressed in matching pastel tracksuits. They sing, “Happy Birthday” to one of the kids, and hardly notice us as we devour our quarter chickens. We’re gone in minutes, anyway, leaving a pile of bones and Loonies for a tip.
Now it’s my turn to drive. The 13 speed Eaton Yale meshes smoothly and the 425 horsepower Cat is hardly challenged by the hills of the Amalguin Highlands. Our payload is only 10,000 lbs.
But I’m immediately having problems with the headlights. These are aftermarket pods mounted on the fender for that “classic” look, but they’re not set up right. One eye shines into the bush and the other is dim as a 40 watt bulb.
The inspection station at North Bay is closed. North of the city, wisps of fog rub along the road and I’m glad we’re taking the northern route rather than Hwy 17. The southern highway hugs the north channel of Lake Huron and is probably fog-bound tonight.
At 90 kph, I can just make out the scarred centre line and shoulder, but the fog worsens and I have to back off the throttle again. I’m straining to keep between the lines, and relieved when the lights of New Liskeard come into sight and Ross suggests we get a motel for the night.
It’s midnight when I pull in beside a long line of trucks. They resemble sleeping dragons, dozens of them snoring on both sides of the road. There are no humans in sight–the drivers are hunkered down in the cabs or in the motel rooms–except Ross, who’s darting across the highway from motel to motel, trying to find the best rate.
Ross beckons from across the road. He’s found a place that will give him a senior rate. Stepping into the lobby, I’m struck by a powerful sense of dislocation and other-wordliness. The pop machine hums in a pool of glaring fluorescence. The young woman behind the desk acts detached and surreal. The scene is empty and metallic–this is truck driving existentialism. Country singer Dwight Yoakam explains it better: “I’m a thousand miles from nowhere / Time don’t matter to me / ‘Cause I’m a thousand miles from nowhere / And there’s no place I want to be…”
Otherwise, it’s not a bad room. We’re asleep in seconds. The next thing I hear is the 6 am wake up buzzer.
Wednesday May 7
A breakfast of links sausages and poached eggs under our belts, we’re rolling with the first streaks of dawn.
The fog lifts in an hour to reveal Northern Ontario. Here, along the roadside, the disparity between north and south in this province is obvious and profound. We pass shanties and cobbled dwellings where souls scratch out a meager living on the harsh shell of the Canadian Shield, where the lakes stay frozen well into May. Most of us southerners couldn’t deal with this type of isolation and the great distances involved. We’re uncomfortable without a Loblaws or Sobeys close by.
“I’m hoping to get the Chev delivered in Thunder Bay tonight. I’ll phone the customer later,” Ross announces.
He gears down in Cochrane and pulls into the Husky parking lot. This will be Ross’ first attempt to sell Boot Brushes enroute.
The owner of the truck stop is Mariel Vachon, a stocky man with a short beard who is holding a baby. He tells Ross that he already has an accessories supplier but he knows about Boot Brushes. Mariel owns a small trucking company as well, Vachon Trucking, and has the brushes mounted on the steps of his six Kenworths. “I’ll take 10 Boot Brushes,” he says, “Six black, four red.”
Mariel points out his trucks parked across the road. He runs them heavy–with 500 Cats under their hoods–hauling B-trains from saw mills fully loaded with wood chips, maxing them out at 63,500 kgs–the legal limit.
He’s not enthusiastic about the state of trucking these days, though. “I’m from the old school,” he says. “I used to have 15 trucks but things are changing too fast for me. Insurance has tripled in the last year. I’ve got six trucks now and eight drivers. And I’m thinking of getting out of the business.”
But he’s proud of his truck stop, a place he bought six years ago. “I’ve always been a truck driver but this crossed my path so I bought it.” Mariel shows me the remodeling he’s done: new showers and the stairs are plate stainless steel–the kind of embossed star-pattern you find on fuel tank steps. Ross, meanwhile, is happily writing a receipt for the Boot Brushes on a sheet of paper.
My turn at the wheel. Northern trucking is making me a friendlier driver. Up here, every trucker waves and expects one in return. The process makes you aware of the name on each truck and gives you a brief glimpse at the driver, but my arm tires soon enough. The oncoming trucks are predominantly Manitoulins, TransX and Bisons from Winnipeg, Erbs and H&R Transport, and a few Yankes. Even the odd Quebec carrier hauling plywood or lumber. Obviously some freight, frozen meat for the most part, is still moving east-west in Canada.
So far, we’ve counted two dead moose and a small squished bear. Almost all the local haulers, chip wagons and logging trucks, sport impressive moose catchers mounted on the noses of their rigs. $3,500 seems expensive for an aluminum grille, but it’s the cost of doing business in the north country. One large animal strike can be career-ending, or write off a $160,000 truck.
Ross shows me a place where a grader pulled him out in 1951. That was when he was driving a White 3000 series with a rounded nose. “The windshield tended to cave in,” he says. “So I made up two lengths of 2X4s that fit between the windshield and the back of the cab.” He also tells me that he also installed a propane lighter on the floor that would backfire and leave his skin blackened with soot.
“This where I nearly froze to death,” Ross says matter-of-factly. Here, the road here is rough in spots, bounded by scrub brush and a pencil-thin shoulder. Kilometres float by without any sign of a homestead or a fenced lot.
“This part of the highway is called, ‘The Stretch,'” he says, shifting into storytelling mode. “It’s 137 miles with nothing in between. One winter night, I stopped for a coffee in Hearst, just back there a piece. Some older drivers told me, ‘Now look, you better think twice about heading out tonight’. But I wanted to get to Vancouver and when you’re young you figure you can do anything.
“It was probably about 30 below F. The gearshift in that White was real sloppy, but it got so cold that it wouldn’t shift properly. Then my steering box froze up on me so I couldn’t steer. I was stopped on the shoulder and the wind was just howling. By then my truck had shut off, too. I wrapped myself in furniture pads trying to keep warm and thought for sure I was going to freeze to death.
“Eventually, a snowplow come along with two guys in it. They took me inside their truck and warmed me up a bit. Then they gave me a lecture and told me I should have known better. Today when I hear some young guy complaining about his air ride seat and his lower lumbar, I think you poor bugger. Don’t you have it tough!”
A flat tire in Kapuskasing comes as a bit of a surprise. Kicking the tires, I find a bolt that has gone through the casing. Luckily there’s a tire shop in town a few kilometres behind us. Pulling under the canopy we’re greeted by a balding service manager with a strong French-Ontario accent–and superb service. The young man who patches the tire is eager to go to lunch and has us fixed up in ten minutes.
The repair job only $50 and we’re conscious of how much a service call would have cost on the highway ($300). It also gives Ross a chance to call the customer in Thunder Bay and tell him we’ll be arriving around suppertime.
Ross also has a friend in Thunder Bay who he knows from the old trucking days. Rudy Croissandt is 89 now and long-since retired. His claim to posterity might be that he drove Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s headquarter bus in North Africa during World War II. Ross can’t get Rudy on the phone but he does contact his son Deiter. He tells us his father usually can’t hear the phone, but Rudy is waiting for our visit.
Past Nipigon, where Hwy 11 and 17 join, there’s too much truck traffic to wave at every driver. Almost at random, Ross takes an exit off the TransCanada that lands us into a residential area of Thunder Bay. We pull up beside a soccer field. The owner of a diner lets us use the phone in her restaurant.
We buy fried chicken to go, but it’s almost too greasy to eat. There’s no time, anyway. The young couple who bought the 55 Chev arrives to escort us to their house. Good thing, it’s a dead end street and difficult to back down. But the vista is exceptional, overlooking Lake Superior and the harbour.
The Chev starts easily and backs off the hoist. We’re secure again in half an hour. The couple insists on giving us an escort to Rudy’s house. Good thing, again, because Rudy lives on a crescent behind an old shopping mall. Ross tries not to knock down too many tree branches as we pull around the street.
The two men hug and walk off arm in arm as soon as Ross steps out of the cab. It’s been 20 years since they’ve seen each other.
Rudy is gaunt but well-preserved. Inside his bungalow, he keeps the shades drawn and the television turned on loud. His wife died a few years ago and his main companion, these days, is a furry tabby cat who is stretched on the couch.
“I have a bottle of whiskey,” he says to Ross.
“Rudy, I quit drinking 26 years ago.”
Instead, the two pour over an old photo album that Ross has brought along. He has pictures of another legendary bedbug, Highway Hank Stroud, who drove a Leyland Beaver for a gypsy trucker in Hamilton. Another photo shows a 32 foot trailer that Ross laid on its side 40 years ago near West Hawk Lake, Manitoba.
Rudy has stacks of photo albums, as well. Old black and whites show him as a young man beside his old Leyland Comet in 1953. A page from a German newspaper shows Rudy with Rommel, himself, and the headquarters bus in the foreground.
Rudy also has a newspaper clipping of the time he escaped along with 5 other German prisoners in 1943. After being captured in North Africa, he was sent to Canada and jailed as a POW in Kapuskasing. The six were quickly rounded up and recaptured.
Evidently, Rudy liked northern Ontario enough to return here with a German bride after the war. Ross met Rudy in the 50s when they both drove for North American Van Lines. They’d see each other at points along the highway. At other times, Rudy would drop into Mackie’s Oshawa warehouse to pick up a return load for Thunder Bay.
“So Rudy, are you going to come to Oshawa and visit me? I’ve got a Harley dealership, now. You can go for a ride on a motorcycle.”
“I’m not going to Toronto. I’m too old,” says Rudy.
“Do you think we can make Vancouver by Friday night?”
Rudy counts off the days on his fingers. “Yeah, sure. I used to do it.”
The two embrace again and I snap a couple of pictures. These are the classic photos that the men want me to take: the two friends beside the cab of the Peterbilt, Rudy with a Player’s cigarette sticking out of his fist. “Hey guys,” shouts Rudy as we pull away. “Keep it on the rubbers!”
I crawl in the bunk almost immediately for a nap (I had a beer at Rudy’s). Ross announces his intention to drive through the night.
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs