Saturday, September 4, 2010

Pick a mountain...

It sounded like it was going to be a nice trip, heading down to Virginia and starting early enough in the day to get a good distance covered in daylight. Virginia is pretty, I’ve been there in the car. There isn’t an obvious way to get there though, what with the mountains and stuff, so I spent a bit of time mulling over the best possible route while I waited to be loaded.

There was time for plenty of mulling. I’d had to drive an hour west to London with a trailer full of empty bins, the company was going to unload those and then put more stuff on before I could head for the border. Since the best crossing for Virginia is at Buffalo, I would be redriving the hour back to Guelph before making any real progress.

My appointment for unloading was 3.30 in the afternoon. I got there 15 minutes late, owing to some shenanigans around load bars. These things are what you use to stop freight from flying about if for some reason the usual straps won’t suffice. And for this load, they wouldn't. This was going to be a full 44,000 lb shipment of heavy bins full of clutch plates and they would be loaded half at the front of the trailer and half over the rear axle, to spread the weight legally. Something hefty behind the rearmost bins was required to stop them walking about every time you have to stop. Automatically worried at the 44,000lb bit of the conversation I’d already asked dispatch about the whole horrible bogie-sliding issue…

”These people are pretty good, they get it right, you shouldn’t have a problem.”
One less thing to worry about, good. But there had to be load bars apparently, straps wouldn't hold these babies down.

“They should be in the trailer from the last trip.”
“I can’t see them, it’s full of bins. Can I assume they’re at the front?”
“They probably are but we shouldn’t take any chances, do you know where we keep them?”
“No, sorry.”
“I’ll meet you outside and show you.”
:Can you show me how they work as well?"

I was very grateful to the kind dispatcher for leaving his desk to help me out until I realised that he fancied a cigarette anyway. The load bar storage trailer was sort of over there, round the back and through a gate. It required reversing up to. Hence the 15 minutes late, so I was initially relieved to be told that the dock they would load me from had another truck still in it...they were running later than I was.

Back to the maps. Culpeper, Virginia lies half way between Interstate 81, which runs between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachians, and Interstate 95, which runs through the Baltimore and Washington conurbation. Given that no-one voluntarily drives round either city, it would be driving some mountains or other but there are two alternatives there too. Highway 15, which follows the path of the Susquehanna River through the top end of the Appalachians, or Interstate 79 through some foothills of the Allegheny mountain range south to Pittsburgh and then the Pennsylvania Turnpike east across the Appalachians. Highway 15 would be bendier, the Turnpike would be uppier and downier, I thought. Possibly. 

I asked Betsy and she wanted to go via Pittsburgh, but then she is set to prefer Interstate roads so she would. I had driven Highway 15 once before, with Challenger and recalled that it is very beautiful but very winding with some sharp turns over bridges. It’s also, not being an Interstate, a bit short on rest stops and I had no idea what time I’d be where for sleeping purposes so decided to let Betsy rule. Bigger road would be better roads after all, and the Turnpike, being a toll road, would naturally be better kept and easier to drive.

I sat waiting for my dock for an hour. Then they told me that I was welcome to back in, but it might be another hour before they got to me. This was ok, it was another of those indoor arrangements, where you can’t see what you’re aiming for until you’ve missed it. Plenty of time to mess about in reverse suited me fine.

But plenty of time is finite and after I’d been waiting three hours I began to fret. I had until 3.30 the following afternoon to get to Culpeper, it was going to be a slow drive, I had to fit in a legal sleep break somewhere so I needed to be heading for the border, now. The unloading began. The guy must have been being paid by the hour, as I’ve never seen a trailer empty out so slowly. He found the errant load bars though, which meant I’d not needed to collect up the extras. I fitted them anyway, here and there along the trailer, it seemed more sensible to have them fixed to the walls than flying about loose. I finally drove out of there four and a half hours after arriving. The sun was going down. If there’s one thing that puts me in a grump it’s sitting about watching the daylight fade, knowing that I could have driven in daylight but now I will drive in the dark instead.

Two hours to the border took me to after 10, I decided to get as far as I could on the other side by midnight, stop while the roads were still flat, get a good sleep and tackle the difficult stuff in daylight. It looked as though I could get through New York State and into Pennsylvania, stopping just before the road turned South at Erie, there was a rest area on the map, that would do. 

Of course, the first time you drive a road there’s no way to assess what the rest areas will be like. Some are huge, some are tiny, some have conventions for how trucks like to park, and where to insinuate yourself when they are officially full. Late at night when commercial traffic has to stop to stay legal there is a spot of ‘anything goes’ which usually involves parking on the shoulder, either as the ramp curves in to the stop or as it leaves. You are at least a lane further from the through traffic just here, but there are limits and you have to make an effort to be safely out of the way. It is always safer to park on the off-ramp, as the traffic coming past you is leaving the stop much more slowly than it would have entered, but if you drive through a full lot to get to the off-ramp and it’s full too, you’re snookered until the next stop, which could be an illegal amount of miles down the road. My rule of thumb is that if there’s a truck on the on-ramp it probably means that the proper spaces and the off-ramp are full. It also means that parking there is acceptable, so I pull in behind it and hope for the best. On a really good day, another truck pulls in behind me, then I know I’m safe and legalish and sleep a lot better.

This was a tiny rest area. Big scary red ‘no-parking’ signs littered the on-ramp and the legal bays were full. Big scary ‘no parking’ signs littered the off-ramp. There was just about room for one truck between where the signs stopped and the ramp ended. It would have to do. I slept bady.

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