Saturday, September 18, 2010

Be careful what you wish for.

The next pickup came through just as I pulled in to the ‘J’ for fuel. Saint Mary’s, Pennsylvania. I looked it up. It was on the way home all right but not via any main roads. On the edge of the Allegheny Forest in Elk County, it was smack in the middle of the mountains. I would be driving across the Appalachians and through the Alleghenies to get there and I had to be there by 8 in the morning. It was lunchtime. Forgoing the shower (thank goodness for baby wipes, they make a tolerable strip-wash at a pinch) I headed off, determined to get as far as I could in daylight. 

Then I thought better of this plan. Once off the 81, I would have very limited access to places to sleep. There would be nowhere safe to pull off the road once I was in the mountains proper. The route Betsy planned out for me included two short stretches of Interstate, a bit of the Turnpike and then a smaller bit of Highway 80 further north. I would have to stop for a legal break on one or the other. The 80 looked as though it only had one rest area within reach of the bit I needed; and that would involve going past my exit and having to double back in the morning. I opted to stop on the turnpike, earlier rather than later. It would mean a lot of driving in the morning, but I could stop at 6, say, then start at 4 in the morning and be there on time, even allowing for bendy roads and slower speed limits.

The Turnpike turned up trumps for me with a real service area just before I had to turn off it to head north. It had parking space, coffee, and pizza and sandwich places for supper and breakfast. If I’d been able to unknot my stomach enough, I’d have been able to eat well. As it was I opted for another nibble of trail mix and fell asleep wondering how long it would be before I would be able to eat properly.

Starting at 4 in the morning is getting easier. The brisk walk to collect coffee helped with waking up, whereupon I realised that it was decidedly foggy. The road had already started to climb, I’d forgotten about altitude and fog. It wasn’t too thick though, I decided as I ran around the truck completing my morning check of lights, tyres and other checkables. It wouldn’t slow me down too much. But I’d forgotten about mountains. Driving off the highway took me onto little winding roads through woodlands and the fog got thicker. Terrible visibility, bends and hills all had me exhausted with churning up and down through the gears. I made very slow progress. With less freight on board, I wasn’t as heavy as I’d been the previous day, but the grades were steeper off the Interstate. They had the sort of percentages that meant big signs demanding that trucks STOP at the top to select the right low gear for getting down it safely. I hadn’t seen that sort of thing since The Rockies. But I had seen it before, and in winter on roads that were too slick for the Jake brake. Once I remembered that I’d done this sort of thing before in worse conditions and survived I perked up enough to take a few photos of a truly stunning dawn. And think a few beautiful thoughts.

I didn’t pass a single rest area, service area or truck stop. None of the junctions were large enough for a joining ramp and if there had been a safe pace to park I would probably have missed it in the overnight fog. I declared my decision of the previous day, to sleep before leaving the turnpike, another stroke of genius and decided, somewhat complacently, to put it down to experience.

Saint Mary’s was in the middle of a mountain. I passed the ‘highest point in the Alleghenies’ to get there. There was a sign. I was an hour late. The foundry itself was a huge building but didn’t have any apparent driveways in or signs for trucks. I stopped by the side of the road opposite a little barrier with a hut and ambled in to ask directions.
“The shipping docks are just down there,” the guard pointed down the road.
“I can’t see a driveway.”
“No, they’re on the side of the building, you can just see a truck backing in now.”
“What, that one reversing across the street?”
“Yes, you can turn around in the parking lot over there,” he indicated a bit of waste land, “the traffic gets a bit impatient but it’s the only way.”
I thanked him prettily, parked where directed and wandered over the road to fret about the docks. There were two of them, both offset to the right so that a right-angled reverse would have your blind side out in the traffic .They were also set back under a roof so that the usual ‘can’t see the dock til you’re in the building’ rules applied as well. The only way in would be to back across a busy road. Oh dear.

The shipper was a charmer called Ray. He parodied my accent for a while as he bustled about checking papers. One of my shipments was ready but the other one would have to be collected from somewhere else by a little van, which would need to unload at the dock before I could pull onto it. At least nobody cared that I was late. Could I wait an hour? I quipped that I could wait an hour for them if they could wait an hour for me to reverse over the road. Ray promised, in an accent worse than anything Dick Van Dyke ever produced, to come and collect me when they had the dock clear. He also undertook, sliding into an accent from Frazier, to stop the traffic on his way back over the road for as long as it took. Anticipating embarrassment I headed off for a snooze. I’d been working for 5 hours already that day and had at least 7 more hours driving to get home. That would have been too many hours driving in the US of course, but crossing the border would give me 2 more legal driving hours. I was learning how to cheat.

The embarrassment wasn’t too bad in the end. There was a bit of jiggery-pokery with lining up under the roof, but all in all, a tolerable effort.
“After all that about your backing,” Ray used the opportunity to try a little more Cockney “and you knew what you were doing all the time.” Gratified, I beamed.
“Ah, well, always under-promise and over-deliver” I put on a truly terrible American accent, “it helps people have a good day.”
Trailer loaded, skids strapped down, paperwork faxed and all in order I headed away from another foundry having made another friend. I was starting to feel like a real trucker at last. One who doesn’t screw up, delay people, apologise for being new or otherwise let the sisterhood down.

The drive from Saint Mary’s to Buffalo and the border was one of the hardest physical things I have ever done. Mountains, little towns, villages, the only road north wound its way through what felt like every community In Pennsylvania. Each little place had a sharp turn into a little main street, with buses, children and shoppers all hell-bent on throwing themselves under my wheels, and a sharp turn out again off into the hilly, bendy bits. As soon as the road widened out into some semblance of a highway, the construction began. By the time I hit the border I was feeling the effects of four days’ worth of too much anxiety, too little sleep and even less food. My three customs dockets were stamped with no trouble and I breathed a sigh of relief, floored the throttle and rejoiced that being in Ontario meant ‘nearly home’. All this adventuring was turning out to be a lot more tiring and stressful than planned.

Arriving at the Guelph plant waiting for my various skids of stuff, I thought my trip was over. Easily onto the dock, perfect paperwork, I was done within 20 minutes and ready to run the scant kilometre back to the yard to park up and go home. But one should never relax too soon.

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