Tuesday, June 14, 2011

ICE ROAD TRUCKER

Okay I'll admit it up front.  I love to watch "Ice Road Truckers" but I have never driven a truck like that much less on ice.  I do admire what those truckers do up in Canada and Alaska as they deliver goods in the dead of winter to people who depend upon them.  I can appreciate how difficult it must be driving a big rig on ice because of my foibles trying to maneuver a car on icy roads.

Here in Missouri we get ice covered roads every winter.  Not a constant road of ice because the Department of Transportation cleans them off within a day or so of them getting icy.  At least twice a year though you will face driving on icy conditions and every once in a while that icy condition will be solid ice.  A lot of times it is such solid ice that you can't tell the ice is there.  It is frozen solid and clear and the road doesn't look slick at all until you hit the ice patch then it looks very slick.  We call that condition black ice.  I am not sure why it is called that because it is really clear ice but anyway that is how it is in Missouri and the rest of the midwest.

As an example of how slick it can get I thought I would give a few examples of driving on ice.  The first example did not involve me at all and I didn't here about it until after the fact so I may get a couple of things wrong in the telling.  My sister use to own a blue Volkswagen Beetle that took her everywhere around the city.  It was in the winter and it was cold.  It had been snowing for a few days and we had a good time sledding down the hill that our house sat on.  The street crews had been through though and the snow was all but gone and so our sledding had come to an end.

Bobby, the kid across the street, decided he had not had enough sledding to satisfy him and so one night after dark he trudged outside.  He got the garden hose out of his garage and proceeded to hook up the line to the faucet before stretching the hose out to the street.  He walked back and turned the water on and proceeded to water down the street like he was watering a garden in the middle of summer.  It wasn't cold enough for the water to freeze on contact but as the street got wet, the surface water did begin to turn into a thin layer of ice.  I can imagine Bobby thinking that tomorrow the sledding would be good.

As he was standing out in his front yard spraying a long arc of water over the street my sister came home.  Now I am not sure what her initial reaction was.  I am sure she saw Bobby standing out there spraying water on the street and then at some time she would be required to bring her car to a stop.  I think she was parking her car in the street so stopping shouldn't have been too difficult.  All she would have to do would be to drive into the front yard and let the snow slow her progression down a bit.  I did here the aftermath though.  She got out of her car and lectured Bobby like a school teacher which turned out to be good practice for her since she would become a school teacher as a career.  She complained about Bobby for what seemed like weeks after that and I don't think she let go of it until spring arrived.  In truth she had every right to lecture the kid the way she did but then again, she was past sledding age.  She was already too old to appreciate a good sheet of ice on the street for sledding purposes.  I think that happens when you start driving your own car and the insurance payments are coming out of your own pocket.

When I was a teenager, I found myself over at Ronnie's house one evening when it began to ice outside.  It came time for me to go home and as I stepped out on the sidewalk my feet came out from under me.  Ronnie's dad decided he would drive me home to keep me safe from sliding cars while I was walking.  It was only a five block drive and he figured he could make it without much trouble.  Ronnie and myself got in the car as his dad began the slow trip over to my house.  He was doing pretty good until he stopped on that hill that my parents lived on to let me out.  As he tried to start up the hill it became obvious the ice was not going to allow that to happen.  He started trying to back down the road and into a driveway to turn around and head home but it was to slick to turn the car and back it into a driveway.  The best solution was that Ronnie and I stood at opposite corners of the car and as Ronnie's dad accelerated at a slow rate, we pushed in opoosite directions turning the car as if it were on a turntable.  Soon we had the car facing down the hill and Ronnie jumped in and they went home.  I swear it took me another ten minutes to walk up that street to my parents house where it was safe and warm.

There came a time when my Aunt Sue had married and moved to Alabama with her new husband.  Grandma and grandpa had driven down south a few times but they were getting older now and if one of their children or grandchildren were heading south they would hitch a ride.  If they failed to find someone to drive them to Alabama they would take a bus to my Aunts house to visit her and her five kids.  When the bus option came into play it was my job to get them to the bus station and make sure they were on their way.

On this particular day they had their bus tickets ready and were set to take the trip.  It had been raining the day before and as the temperatures dropped the rain slowly turned into freezing rain.  This is where black ice is at its most dangerous.  The o moisture is falling as rain and then freezing as it hits ice that had fallen earlier.  It was slick that morning but not overly so.  In my mind as I headed over to their house I felt fairly comfortable driving on the roads.  I got to their house and after loading their luggage in the car I helped them walk out on the slippery sidewalk and into the car.  On the way over to the bus station I began to feel a little too at ease driving on the roads.  That became clear as we started down a curving hill on our final approach to the bus station.  The car slid out from under me and I started working my hands as fast as I could.  The car was in free slide and no matter what I did with the steering wheel it had no effect on the movement of the car at all.  We spun completely around as we slid down the hill and came to rest only when my car hit the curbing on the other side of the road.  After the car had stopped all three of us sat very quietly pondering what had just happened.  Grandma was the first to break the silence.  "Well, that was exciting," she said in a very flat tone.  Me and grandpa smiled at each other and I continued getting them to the bus station without any further incidents.

The last example takes place in early spring.  We were heading to Alabama to visit my sister and the day started out dark but fairly nice.  As we passed Columbia we started getting some rain.  This was of concern because when we had left Kansas City earlier that day it was cold with temperatures hovering right around the freezing mark.  It turns out that it was just a little colder in St. Louis that it was in Kansas City that day and so as we neared St. Louis the rain began to turn to ice.  Soon I found myself struggling to keep the car on the road and it was becoming very apparent that it was getting dangerous.  We saw a McDonalds up ahead and decided to pull in and wait out the storm until it warmed up a little as the day dawned.  We weren't the only ones that had the idea that if you are going to be stuck somewhere, McDonald's is a very fine choice.

I noticed in the parking lot that not only car drivers did not want to take a chance on the ice, but some big rigs apparently had decided not to take the chance as well.  Ice Road truckers would not show up on television for another twenty five years or so but it was apparent looking back on the situation that Missouri truckers probably would not fare too well in the wilds of Alaska and Canada during the dead of winter.

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