In the summer months, Northern Ontario’s Highway 17 was one of the most scenic routes in the entire province, perhaps even in the country, but in the winter it was bleak and unforgiving and a real test of a driver’s skill and mettle.
All of which made Mark wonder why he was driving this stretch of highway in January.
Mark had been driving so long and had been through so many adventures that he no longer had to prove anything to anybody, but here he was, negotiating snow and icy roads just like he’d done years ago when he’d take any sort of long-haul load that came his way.
“Thank God,” he exclaimed when he saw the sign that let him know that the Husky truck stop at Dryden was just a few kilometres away.
As he began to slow Mother Load to allow her to properly cool down, Mark scanned the radio for a local weather forecast. The radio practically went through the range twice before catching a strong enough signal from CKDR in Dryden.
Apparently, there was a storm front moving in over the next few hours and the OPP was warning drivers of possible drifting snow and icy road conditions. “So,” the host said, “stay home if you don’t have anywhere to go.”
Good advice, Mark thought. But there would always be a few cowboy truckers who thought they could get their rigs through anything. No doubt the wrecking crews would be patrolling the entire length of the highway looking for stranded truckers to rescue, but Mark decided he was too old for adventure driving and he’d likely sit this one out.
As he pulled into the truck stop, Mark saw a dozen or more rigs all lined up for a good night’s rest, as well as a handful of trucks idling out by the pumps while drivers busily worked around the drive wheels connecting chains for the next leg of the journey to Kenora.
“Crazy as a dollar coin or desperate for money,” he muttered under his breath as he pulled Mother Load into a parking spot.
Getting out of his truck, Mark noticed that the driver closest to him, hooking up a set of chains to an International was having a bit of trouble.
While he didn’t want to drive the highway himself today, he knew other drivers could probably drive the highway safely at slower speeds with chains on their drive wheels.
And if a driver was determined to drive the highway, they might as well do it with properly fitted chains.
“Can I give you a hand?” he said, coming up behind the kneeling driver who was struggling with a set of chains.
“Get lost,” came the response.
It was only then that he realized that the struggling driver was a woman. “Sorry, just trying to help.”
“Thanks, but I don’t need your help,” she said.
“Suit yourself,” Mark said. Then he noticed another driver nearby in the very same predicament. He approached the driver and made the same offer.
“Sure,” he said. “That’d be great.”
With a half-smile on his face, he glanced over at the woman cursing at the chains that just didn’t want to go around her tires, then began giving assistance to the second driver.
In no time at all, the chains were on the man’s truck. Mark made it a point to look over at the woman – who was still working away – and say in his loudest voice, “Job goes a lot quicker with two people doing it.”
“Yeah. Thanks, Buddy,” the driver who he’d just helped said. “Let me buy you a coffee.”
Inside the truck stop, Mark ordered dinner and ate it slowly since it was obvious he wasn’t going to be going any further west today.
The food was what you’d expect from a truck stop with lots of gravy, vegetables that had once been frozen and a steakette that was just a few notches above hamburger.
Even so, it was hot and tasty and the group inside the truck stop was unknowingly putting on quite an entertaining show.
Over by the window that looked overlooked the gas pumps were a group of four men.
They were all intently watching the woman who still had not yet hooked up the chains to her rig, laughing at her loudly at every stumble and misstep she made.
There has to be a problem, Mark thought.
She looks like she knows what she’s doing, so there has to be a real problem with the equipment for her to take so long.
At last, a half-hour later, as Mark was sipping his second cup of coffee, the woman entered the truck stop.
But instead of relief, there was a look on her face that was halfway between annoyance and terror.
And in seconds Mark knew why.
“Not like putting on a dress, is it?” said one of the men at the table.
“Side of the road’s no place for a woman,” said another, loud enough for the woman to hear. “Kitchen and bedroom, that’s where they belong.”
Unfazed by the comments, she placed her belongings at an empty table, then strode confidently toward the bathroom.
When she was out of sight, the men at the table by the window laughed.
Initially, Mark had been disappointed by the brutish nature of the men’s comments, but he recalled how she’d spoken to him outside when he’d offered his help to her, and figured she had it coming to her.
After all, even if there was a problem, a driver is responsible for the condition of his or her equipment and should know how to use that equipment when it’s needed. Chains generally go on in minutes, not hours.
The door to the women’s bathroom opened a short time later and the inside of the truck stop went quiet.
Still walking proud, the woman headed straight toward the table of men by the window.
No one said a word as she walked right up to them and stood as close as she could to the loudest of them all, towering over him like a teacher over a schoolboy.
“If you’ve got something to say,” she said so everyone in the restaurant could hear. “Get it off your chest now, so I can tell your wife how much of a jerk her husband is the next time I see her.”
That seemed to disarm the men.
“Don’t worry, she already knows,” the ringleader said.
It was funny, and everyone laughed, but clearly the teasing was over…for now. Without another word, she turned and headed for the chair that held her belongings, leaving the men slack-jawed in her wake.
As Mark watched her he felt a strong sense of admiration for her in his heart.
It couldn’t be easy being a woman in an industry dominated by men, but she seemed to be handling it well.
As she passed his table, he nodded in her direction, knowingly, as if to acknowledge her as one of his colleagues.