Friday, January 23, 2009

There'll be other dawns

I was unfair to Saskatchewan. It doesn’t just have Wossname Lake, it has the Saskatchewan Potash Interpretive Centre as well. How could I possibly have missed this gem on the way out, when it was a major point of interest on the way back? And what is a Potash Interpretive Centre anyway? Well one has to Google, doesn’t one? And there would appear to be an exhibition mine celebrating the Province’s modest claim to fame. Its website includes the strapline “more to Saskatchewan than meets the eye” which is clearly true, since nothing meets the eye.

The only tourist attraction signposted along the whole of the TransCanada Highway from Manitoba to Alberta set me to wondering what else about this province doesn’t meet the eye and thanks to the Internet I found some serious excitement. No less than six villages with murals depicting historical events, a couple of dams, a lighthouse, the Addison Sod House and the World’s largest Coffee Pot. People have told me relatively often of the boredom of driving across the Prairies, but only now do I get it. The only visual cue leaves one pondering the curvature of the earth.

It was just such a ponder that had me all of a twitter of excitement for driving back home through the sunrise. When the horizon is the only thing you can see, driving east at dawn has to be almost mystical right? “I’ll start at two and drive through dawn today” I volunteered to Neil. We are trying to take it in turns to drive at antisocial times, splitting the night driving and the unnatural sleeping times. I think that thus far Neil is coping a little better with the exhaustion stakes, he has had a little longer than I have to get used to sleeping while moving, but he still quite enjoys shutting down and getting decent rest where possible, so driving through dawn can be my job if I want it.

I braced myself for the longer western night and drove hopefully towards the sunrise, mentally composing a soppy romantic blog, entitled “Lovely girl, Dawn” and waxing lyrical about sunrises past and the places they took me back to. But then the fog descended. Freezing fog, blotting out the sky, settling on the mirrors and reducing visibility to a matter of feet. It froze its way into my soul, I pulled into a closed weighstation in disgust and settled down for a half-hour catnap where the dawn should have been. Maybe it’ll be an uplifting experience next time.

The first real run is over. We covered fifty-five hundred miles in five days and would have delivered our final load back in Toronto on time, if it hadn’t been for the blown tyre about a quarter of an hour from our destination. Goodness, a disabled truck can cause some chaos on the ramp from the 400 to the 401 in rush hour. Still, on the up side, I now know all about how to send breakdown messages by satellite.

Was it ok? Yes, on the whole it was fine. I seem to have mastered reversing at last. Neil, being a mere trucker and not an instructor, has the wisdom to just stand there and let me work it out for myself. With no-one telling me what to do, I can just manoeuvre a bit, look at the result, think about it, do some more and get there in the end. The results are inch-perfect, and don’t take a great deal longer in the grand scheme of things. Just the sleep thing left to beat then. Off to a non-moving bed for several days.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Heading West

We finally reached Calgary, via Montreal and Edmonton. It’s been very cold, we’ve had fog, blowing snow, slushy roads and a slight delay while emergency services blocked the road digging a hapless tractor-trailer out of a ditch. That is not something one wants to happen on the first real journey; and neither is getting a bit stuck taking a tight right hand turn under a bridge and having to take up the whole junction to reverse out of trouble. I still hate Montreal.

However, minor irritations and not-enough-sleep aside, all is going comparatively well. Team driving is taking a bit of getting used to, mainly trying to get to sleep while the truck is moving. It’s sort of comforting in a way, a bit like being on a combination of train and boat but noisier and bouncier than either. The main problem is switching off your mind sufficiently to doze off, as there is a tendency to ‘do the driving’ as you lay there; sensing moves up and down through the gears, spotting hills and corners, wondering at stops whether the brakes will make this sound or that, according to whether we are at traffic lights or problems. I understand that some people never manage to train their bodies to sleep in a moving truck and that others develop an eventual inability to sleep in beds that keep still. The trick, I am advised, is to get so totally dog-tired that you’d fall asleep standing up given half a chance. So my transition shouldn’t be too long now.

Of course, when you are trying to sleep in a moving truck there is the safety net to be negotiated. This cross between football goal and mosquito net anchors into a series of seatbelt fittings, slung from the back wall to the side of your bunk. It is meant to stop you rolling out of bed and hurting yourself in case of sudden unpleasantness of a deceleration variety. I don’t want to try it out, looks like one could have an additional strangling/tangling crisis of one’s own independent of any disasters of an up-front variety. It’s a bit floppy and heavy, and lays in wait for unwary fingers and toes if you happens to be an exuberant turner-over. There were many things I had anticipated having difficulty with, but getting eaten by one’s own safety net had not been one of them.

We’ve been driving west. The scenery changes dramatically day by day. It’s dusk as you pass hilly, lakey, evergreen stuff, then the sun comes up under the prairies, flat as far as the eye can see and extremely boring. It’s still boring when the sun goes down again and then dawn lights up mountains in the distance and it’s getting early later. We drove through a time zone a day, which makes dawn most confusing. When you’re a bit tired and dozy and waiting for the sun to come up between seven and eight because dawn will make you feel better, there is a surge of disappointment when it doesn’t and you realise the night will last an hour longer. Yet again I am gobsmacked at how much of the curvature of the earth you can cover in a day.

There isn’t much to keep one amused driving across Canada, except for the signposts along the highway, which get fewer and further between the further west one travels. Northern Ontario, still has some people in it, so there are ads as well as roads off to little towns. I had several hours in which to ponder the significance of Mikey’s Smoke House, Wild Meat Processed. I knew this was hunting country but hadn’t given the mechanics of hunting sufficient thought before to twig that it would mean eating what you kill. Yes, presumably someone has to skin, gut and chop up the still warm deer. Wouldn’t you want to do that for yourself? Is it all part of the experience? On balance, and after about a thousand miles of thought, I think I’d want Mikey to do it for me too.

Through Manitoba and into Saskatchewan, I can’t report much other than place names. Manitoba had some. We passed signposts to places and it helped the time pass to watch them get nearer, see them drop behind and then wait excitedly for the next. Saskatchewan didn’t. Have places that is. Which doesn’t leave one much to think about, except for one very exciting road sign... Qu’apelle Lake. Now, my French is a little rusty so correct me if I’m wrong but surely that’s the French for Wossname? Only the French could get away with it.


Friday, January 16, 2009

What, no prom?

Well, it’s been a few weeks. What with Christmas and things shutting down and people having holidays, I didn’t ‘graduate’ until last week. Final assessment drive: check. (Reversed into the right bay, blimey.) Three day classroom induction: check. I now know the company policy for being hijacked, which is a significant comfort. It boils down to ‘keep driving unless you think it’s safer to stop’. I’m glad it’s not too complicated; one wouldn’t want to forget the finer points in a crisis. Winter driving assessment in simulator: check. Apparently they want to watch you drive on the world’s slipperiest surface, under circumstances where you can’t break anything or fall off a mountain. Got a bit seasick.

So we find ourselves, finally, four months after beginning this mad escapade at the point where real trucking begins. Another new truck, another new partner, but this time a team driver who will be asleep when I am at the wheel and vice versa. No more instructors; they think I can do it. Would I be able to sleep with someone as new as me at the wheel? Think I’ll plead the fifth.

New truck is an automatic Freightliner, no fancy chrome stuff where your sightlines should be. It feels a little odd not fighting with a 13 speed crash gearbox to get the thing moving but I have a feeling my elderly knees will appreciate the change relatively soon.

New partner is Neil, who is another Brit, softly spoken with a bit of a West Country burr and much favoured by the despatch team who look after us. Apparently he always gets where they send him on time. I am hoping to not spoil his reputation. We head out tonight for Montreal, and thence to Calgary, and then, who knows? It’s bitterly cold, with record-breaking wind chills, Alberta Clippers are still dumping masses of snow across the country and we leave at midnight. Remind me, what was it that was unexciting about making wedding cakes for a living?