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Travels With An Old Bedbug (December 01, 2003)

The following is the final part of a four part series on Harry Rudolfs' highway adventures with living Canadian trucking legend Ross MackieFriday, May 9Ross parks illegally in front of a pancake hous...


OLD FRIENDS: Ross Mackie (left) visited with former trucker Rudy Croissant.
OLD FRIENDS: Ross Mackie (left) visited with former trucker Rudy Croissant.

The following is the final part of a four part series on Harry Rudolfs’ highway adventures with living Canadian trucking legend Ross Mackie

Friday, May 9

Ross parks illegally in front of a pancake house to start the day. We chow down on a small stack each, fueling up for our climb into the mountains.

Rolling upwards, we share the highway with sad-eyed commuters and contractors, and the occasionally SUV with skis strapped on the roof. Light snow is powdering down, leaving a white coat on the fields and horses. The landscape looks like an Ian Tyson song.

We turn off the Trans-Canada at Banff and take Highway 93 southwest where it winds through Marble Canyon and joins 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 millennia, 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.

Back on the Trans-Canada at Golden, B.C., 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 pushed all kinds of limits.

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 romanced their way from one corner of the country to the other. At other times they dodged the newly constituted Ministry of Transport officials: gypsy truckers often carried bills of sale and claimed the freight as their own.

I’m happy to drive the next stretch through Kelowna. I picked apples there for a Sikh family in 1980. 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. Ours, rather, 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 slopes. Only once does Ross warn me to lay off on a steep decline, otherwise they’re 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 lumberyard a little after 10:00 p.m. The motel across the street reads “Best Prices” and this is the best one 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

I sip coffee and fix up the logbooks while Ross does the circle check. He’s 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 out two hours driving time and a lot of headaches. But the real driving is on the old highway, Ross tells me. “I could show you some places,” he says.

The Coquihalla Highway is one of the world’s most modern freeways 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 beckons us to get weighed. It’s a formality. The inspector nods to me from behind a sheet of plate glass and flips on the green light. It’s Saturday and he probably wishes he wasn’t working.

Ross is hoping to get the truck washed, and his wish is answered at a truck plaza in Chilliwack. Within the same block, there are two truck washes and a good restaurant. Ross forks out $100 for the wash while I head for the truck stop.

Gloria’s Diner is a welcome oasis. The food across Canada has been less than wholesome, but her restaurant is, arguably, one of the best truck stops in the country. The dcor is simple: drivers sit around wooden tables and plastic chairs; newspaper posters of the Vancouver Canucks are taped to the walls.

The owner, 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.

“The truckers go crazy for our meatloaf or Salisbury streak. Everything is homemade,” she says. “Give them good portions at a good price. And 14 hour work days, seven days a week,” she adds.

Meanwhile, Ross has found one of his trucks parked in the back row. With over a hundred brokers scattered across the continent, it’s not really surprising to find one of his furniture teams bunking in Chilliwack, waiting for their next assignment. And Patrick and Phyllis Skinner, out of St. John’s, Nfld., are a good catch.

They look crisp as they enter the restaurant. Patrick is freshly shaved and wearing a clean shirt. At 51 years of age he has a well-defined belly and a wing of blond/gray hair that sweeps back into a ducktail.

Phyllis 49, is half the size with curly hair and round glasses. She doesn’t drive but handles all the bookkeeping and inventory records.

She also does 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.

Back on the highway, we’re very close to Vancouver now. My son Matthew, 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 kid whom I haven’t seen in six months.

Awkwardly, the two trucks have a short reunion on the shoulder just before the next exit. I quickly explain where we’re meeting my son.

Ten minutes later we ramp off at the Burnett exit where Matthew is waiting. I take a picture of the bunch of them. Then we shake hands and separate. Ross and the other truck continue to the airport bleating their air horns, while Matthew and I walk off across the bridge.

Ross will head back to Ontario in a couple of days via Emerson, Manitoba where he’ll cross the border and pick up a couple of cars in Green Bay, Wisconsin. 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.

Later that evening, I find Phyllis’ poem in my pocket (see below).

It seems like a good way to end the journey.

DRIVER’S PRAYER

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’s 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 grille and my bunk, they comfort me.

They preparest a table for me at many restaurants.

They anoint my food with grease.

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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