Mark had been driving through Alberta with a load of hot tubs destined for a warehouse in Calgary. The spa tubs were a sure sign that summer was just around the corner and Mark for one looked forward to the coming months of good weather and easier driving.
Sure, there was a feeling of accomplishment that went with tackling the worst winter had to offer…and winning, but there was no comparing to driving miles of dry asphalt with a clear sky overhead and a warm summer breeze coming in through a rolled-down window.
And then, as if on cue, Mark’s cell phone rang.
The only thing that could make Mark feel better about the day was if the call was coming from a lady friend, preferably one from the Prairie provinces. Unfortunately, a glance at the phone’s caller ID told Mark it was Bud calling, probably with another load.
“Hello,” Mark said.
“Mark, it’s Bud.”
“Bud-der, as in bread and budder,” Bud said. “I’ve got a bunch of sweet loads if you’re interested.”
“Sure, what do you got?”
“Edmonton to Yellowknife, as many loads as you want…all spring and
“Everything they’re going to need to move north when the ice road opens up in the winter.”
Mark shook his head. “I don’t want to drive on any ice. I did that once already with your nephew Jimmy and that road is too dangerous…even for me.”
Mark had spent a week on the Tibbitt to Contwoyto ice road north of Yellowknife that serviced the gold and diamond mines in Canada’s North only to find himself the subject of a murder attempt by a mob
“No ice roads,” Bud said. “Just the stuff that will travel on it.”
Mark’s first load north was a flatbed of cement bags that would eventually be used to fortify walls deep under the earth in one of the diamond mines far north of Yellowknife.
It was heavy and unglamorous, but the pay was good and the work was steady so he decided he would drive the north for the little while and hope he didn’t hit a caribou in his travels.
Just a couple of hours out of Edmonton, Mark came to understand why transport companies might always be on the lookout for new drivers.
At 16 hours, the drive was long and monotonous with not a lot in the way of scenery or traffic to keep you entertained or focused on driving.
When the best things you can say about the trip is that it’s paved the entire way and there’s a bridge now instead of a ferry, it says a lot about the quality of the drive.
And now, just four hours into his eight-hour drive from Edmonton to High Level and the halfway mark of the journey, Mark was feeling sleepy.
Despite having what he’d thought was a full night’s sleep the previous evening, and listening to one of his favourite audiobooks – Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption – Mark could feel his eyelids getting heavy.
And while the roadway was paved, it wasn’t like driving the Trans-Canada through Quebec or the 401 through Ontario.
There were plenty of rough patches and the shoulders seemed like they crept in on either side of the highway, pulling at Mother Load’s front wheels every chance they got.
And the scenery…at first Mark thought it was beautiful and majestic, but after a while even that began to wear thin and each vista blurred into the next. And while the road signs and mile-markers were helpful, what he wouldn’t give to see a gas station, garage or house along the way.
Mark glanced at the screen of his GPS and saw that there were still over a thousand kilometres to go before he reached his destination.
Suddenly, Mother Load began to tremble and lean to the right.
Mark looked up and saw that the forest had closed in on him and the ditch at the side of the road had become a gaping trench that that had opened up to swallow him whole.
The wheels of his truck began to shudder as his tires began to cut into the loose gravel and dirt beneath them.
Eyes wide and knuckles white, he avoided the temptation to suddenly jerk the steering wheel and instead eased Mother Load into a gentle left turn, hanging on through the rumble and vibration of the soft shoulder until the truck and its heavy load had crawled back onto the smooth hard asphalt.
Fully awake and absolutely alert now, Mark held the steering wheel straight for a few hundred metres until he dared slow down and guide his rig safely onto a section of shoulder that was wide, flat and safe enough to stop on.
And then a long, deep sigh.
He glanced at his GPS screen again and shook his head. He still had three hours of driving to go…and even then he would only be halfway to his ultimate destination.
Mark reached over and grabbed the Thermos he’d filled with coffee just outside of Edmonton. It was still hot and steamed nicely as he poured it into the big bowl-like cap of the Thermos. He took a sip, then took his coffee outside, feeling that a break from behind the wheel was just what he needed.
Another sip, followed by a slow appreciative look at his surroundings. Inside the truck there had been a sameness to the nature around him, like a perfect forest and mountain vista was being repeated every few kilometers like the background of an old Flintstones cartoon. But now, in person, the sounds and smells and vastness of it all was almost too beautiful for him to be a part of.
In the distance – less than a half-kilometre away – a group of cariboo crossed the highway behind him.
And then…buzzing in his ear. He swatted at it, but the buzzing came back louder. Mark’s head swiveled on his shoulders to see mosquitoes swarming about his head. Mark brushed his hands over his face and head feeling the insects land on the backs of his hands and break into his flesh.
“Ahhh,” he screamed as a black fly tore a chunk of skin from the outside of his ear.
Without hesitation he bolted back toward Mother Load. Hopefully he’d be able to open the cab door on the first try and escape the swarms of beasts that were out for his blood.
His hand grabbed the handle firmly on the first try. The door swung open with ease and he was up and inside Mother Load in seconds…
Along with a hundred or more of the pesky, bloodthirsty insects.
Mark released the parking brake, threw Mother Load in gear, and headed back out onto the highway.
Now, with passengers on board, he was easily alert and attentive the rest of the way to the midway point of his journey in High Level.