Mark gets a regular route from Edmonton to Yellowknife transporting supplies for the winter ice road. Halfway through his first trip he gets sleepy and nearly drives off the road. When he takes a break and gets out of his truck, he’s swarmed by insects. After jumping back into his truck, he is fighting off the bugs all the way to High Level.
Mark reaches Yellowknife and immediately hits his bunk in the yard in an attempt to get some much-needed sleep. However, Johnny Jones, a driver Mark had helped in the past recognizes Mother Load and refuses to go away until Mark lets him take him into town. Mark has a great time, but gets little sleep, making driving even more of a challenge.
Back in Edmonton, Mark rents a hotel room and plans on getting some serious sleep. But his mother calls and tells him his father had nearly died but is now out of the hospital. Mark can’t fall back asleep. The next day he’s tired and while he’s driving the MacKenzie Highway watches the driver in front of him fall asleep and drive off the road.
Mark stayed with the driver until a police officer from Peace River showed up to take over the scene. While Mark waited, he chatted with the driver and discovered that the two men were very much alike.
“My wife wanted me to make more money,” he said. “So I came up here hoping to make a killing in a couple of months. But every time my cell phone comes into range she calls me up and nags me about how hard it is to manage the kids without me being there and wants me to come home. All I can think about is how she wants me to make more money but never be away from home. I can’t sleep at all and my last cell phone bill was killer.”
Mark suggested he changed cell phone providers, or just keep his phone turned off and deal with everything at once when he returns home, instead of every day by phone. When the officer finally arrived, Mark said good-bye, wished the man luck and was back on the MacKenzie headed north. By now he was well late of his ETA in Yellowknife, but there was nothing much he could do about it. To Mark’s mind there was nothing more important than helping out a fellow driver in distress…even if all that meant was listening to the man complain about his life. In addition to being late however, Mark was also drowsy and found himself nodding off and jerking his head back upright more than a few times. Mark knew he was playing a dangerous game.
After all, driver fatigue was a contributing factor in 40% of all heavy truck crashes. And, large trucks accounted for 13% of all vehicle deaths while they represented only 3% of vehicles on the road. If that weren’t bad enough, reports have determined that the risk of crash doubled between the eighth and tenth hour of driving, and doubled again between the tenth and eleventh hour. That was a bad one because Mark’s drive was roughly eight hours for each leg, so if he were delayed or slowed for any reason his chances of an accident in the final few kilometres would be substantially higher.
At least Mark was not part of the group of drivers that was most at-risk for a sleep-related accidents. That’s because he was older and presumable wiser than younger drivers who often drove in situations that were likely to contribute to increased fatigue. Mark didn’t play the “I think I can make it” game anymore, but he played it plenty of times in his youth. But despite knowing all of that, Mark still found himself drowsy at the wheel and at risk of a sleep-related accident. How did he get to this point?
He’d planned his trips, built-in rest stops and overnight sleeps. He had done all he could to ensure he was well rested, but the other parts of his life hadn’t co-operated. He’d been awakened every time he’d tried to sleep and then his mind wouldn’t let him get back to sleep even when he had the chance. And now, he was driving while dangerously close to falling asleep at the wheel.
He needed to find a place to stop so he could take a nap, or maybe even a couple hours of sleep. But even that was a tall order as this part of the MacKenzie Highway didn’t have much in the way of shoulders. There was really nowhere for him to stop.
He managed to pour himself a cup of coffee while driving and the caffeine helped him to remain awake, but he still needed to find a rest spot where he could take a rest. Then, up ahead, he saw a spot where the highway’s shoulder widened. As he studied the point in the distance, Mother Load drifted right onto the shoulder and Mark was shocked into realizing that he’d nearly fallen asleep while fixated on finding a spot where he could get some sleep. Things were worse than he’d thought. Mark decided he couldn’t risk driving any further.
He decided on a spot on the highway that was behind a large highway sign listing the three next towns. They were all too far for Mark to reach safely, so he parked Mother Load slightly past the sign, hoping that it’s thick wooden posts would take the brunt of a trucker – a trucker much like himself – that might fall asleep behind the wheel and drift onto the shoulder right where Mark had pulled over. If nothing else, they’d hit the sign first and either slow down before they hit Mark or swerved off the highway completely.
Once Mark was parked, he put out some reflective flares behind Mother load, initiated his hazard lights, and climbed into the bunk for some much needed rest.
Hours late but in one piece, Mark pulled into the yard in Yellowknife. When he checked into the office, the man behind the counter asked Mark if he’d be interested in a load back to Edmonton that afternoon.
“I’ve got to get some sleep,” Mark said.
“You can get your eight hours in, and pull out of here by five.”
“No, you don’t understand. I need to get some sleep.”
The man nodded. “Everybody does…but everybody needs money too. That’s why most guys are up here, isn’t it? Trying to make as much money as they can.” The guy looked Mark over. “I figured that’s why you’re here.”
“Money’s valuable,” Mark said. “But so is my life. I’ll take that load, IF it’s still available when I wake up tomorrow morning.”
“Somebody’ll probably take it by then.”
“Then I’ll take the next one.”
“Can’t say when that will be.”
Mark smiled. “There’s always another load, but I’ve only got one life. I’d rather take a chance on there not being a load for me than not making my next destination.”
Mark turned and left the office. He walked over to Mother Load, grabbed his overnight bag and locked her up tight. If he slept in the truck, someone might recognize it and wake him up.
He walked into Yellowknife, stopped in at the first hotel he came across and booked himself a room for the night. He signed the register “Mark S. Snaurus.”
The clerk behind the desk looked at the register and asked, “What kind of name is that?”
“It’s an ancient Latin name meaning Terrible Sleeping Lizard.”
Mark left the lobby and found his room.
He left a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, called the lobby and requested that no calls be forwarded to his room. Finally, even though his cell phone didn’t work this far north, he shut it off anyway and tossed it into the closet. Then he lay back, counted a single sheep, and fell into a deep, deep sleep.
Mark Dalton returns next month in another adventure.