Truck News


Travels With An Old Bedbug (September 01, 2003)

The following is the first of a four part series on Harry Rudolfs' highway adventures with living Canadian trucking legend Ross Mackie.I jumped at the chance to ride across most of Canada with Ross M...

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

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 13 plants in six countries.

But most of all, Ross is a good driving companion and an expert yarn-spinner.

His crackling, dry wit cuts like a chainsaw. His blue eyes sparkle when he talks about the wild old days.

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 Mackies.

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, over 50 years ago.

Grandpa Charlie and a hired man, Lloyd Simcock, drove a three-ton Chev straight truck. 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 seminal time in trucking history. Extra-provincial road transport was still in its infancy.

Some general freight was moving over the road, and a few bedbugs (furniture haulers) were making long distance forays. But for the most part, almost everything shipped across Western Canada was moving by rail.

Ross recalls a challenging and often heart-stopping ride through the Rockies.

Most of the passes were single lane with treacherous switchbacks. If you met an oncoming truck, one of you had to back up to a “cutout” – a wider section of road where two vehicles could squeeze by each other.

The pair chugged through the towns of Creston, Trail and Rossland.

Their little tractor with its 248 cu. inch gasoline engine was badly underpowered and struggled on every grade.

Unexpectedly, 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, no one in Vancouver wanted to buy the small block Chev. 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 p.m. Ross is still juggling tasks. He stops to talk to the plant electrician, then answers the wall phone in the dispatch office. On his way to the paint bay he drops by the pumps to chat with some owner operators.

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 had the unit hurriedly certified and quarter-plated.

With almost perfect timing, a load of classic cars for British Columbia materialized in the warehouse.

And what delicious cargo it is. I watch a crew strap a 1963 Corvette to the enclosed auto carrier’s upper deck.

Next, they roll in a 1937 Plymouth, and then a ’55 Chevy bound for Thunder Bay. A hacked-up dirt bike rounds out the load.

It matters little that Thickson Road is choked with homebound commuter traffic. The start of any journey is fueled by nervous expectation. The Cat engine pulls us gently over the hillocks of Durham County. The afternoon sun shines divinely over the pastoral landscape.

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 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.

I take over the wheel at Huntsville. The 13 speed Eaton meshes smoothly and the 425 horsepower Cat is hardly challenged by the hills of the Amalguin Highlands.

Our payload is only 10,000 lbs.

The inspection station at North Bay is closed.

North of town, 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 km/h, I can just make out the scarred centre line and shoulder, but the fog worsens and I 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 either side of the road.

No humans in sight – the drivers are hunkered down in the sleepers or in motel rooms – except Ross, who’s darting across the highway from motel to motel, trying to find the best rate.

Stepping into the lobby, I’m struck by a powerful sense of dislocation.

The pop machine hums in a pool of glaring fluorescence.

This could be anywhere and nowhere – truck driver existentialism.

Otherwise, it’s not a bad room. We’re asleep in seconds.

The next thing we hear is the 6 a.m. wake up buzzer.

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