Chapter I  Love for the Road


My love for the road started at an early age.  When I was 14 years of age, I watched the big rigs pull out of the shop going to points unknown to me.


Knowing that their destination was California, I visualized that as a completely different country.  I had never been out of East Texas and to think about California and points in between was beyond my comprehension.


I felt that at one day I would have my turn at ‘beyond the sun’.  I also knew that the only way I would get there would be to learn how to drive the over the road big rigs.


Going forward, I learned how to drive; eventually owned my own 18-wheeler; and had a company that ran multiple tractors and trailers to points west.  What was once a dream had become a reality.


During those years, I kept my driving skills current.  There were trips when a driver was not available and others when someone needed help.  I also volunteered to fill in for churches on their trips.


I also used my experience driving 18-wheelers with local charter bus companies in the Fort Worth/Dallas metroplex.  Most of the trips were local and not more than 2 – 3 days; however, there were trips that lasted up to two weeks.


Using these experiences, I found a beauty that is ‘beyond imagination’.  Even the deserts in West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California had their unique beauty.  It gave me an opportunity to see the country; keep the ministry going; and provide support for my family.


Many of our states across the country have magnificent mountains.  Colorado has some very beautiful mountains, yet they are dangerous.  There are many steep passes, inclines, hills (to the general public – they are called mountains.)  Some of the hills get up as high as 15,000 feet.  That is 15,000 feet above sea level.  For comparison Dallas is only a little over 3,000 feet above sea level.


COHills.jpgYou could easily be over 2 miles higher than the Fort Worth/Dallas area.  Aircraft have to have oxygen for altitudes over 10,000 feet, yet we travel without any added oxygen assistance.


On these hills, you have to know when to hold them and when to let them go as the Kenny Rogers’ country music song communicated.  His song is about gambling.  I am talking about braking the coach.  We had to learn how to keep from getting the brakes hot and losing control all together.


Throw in the inclement weather including Colorado snow, sleet, icy conditions, and you have an accident looking for a place to happen.  Colorado snow is not like regular snow.  It hits your windshield like a baseball and splatters.  And It is about the same size.  It does not take long to create problems seeing out the windshield.


The windshield wipers are very little help as they ice over.  The ice builds on the wipers; they get farther and farther away from the windshield.  You have to stop ever so often and break away the ice from the wipers so that they could reengaged the windshield..


The hill inclines, especially coming down, add to the dilemma.  Care has to be exercised to maintain control so that there is no danger of going over a cliff.  Losing brakes meant that the brakes had gotten hot – most commonly referred to as mushy or spongy – from constant use and could no longer be counted on to stop the coach.


Safe run-off ramps are provided on most of really bad hills in the event a coach or 18-wheeler did lose its brakes.  The pull-offs, however, destroy the bottom of your equipment.  BUT better to damage the bottom of the coach than to take your charter groups over a cliff.


Wolfe Creek in southern Colorado is one of those hills.  I came over Wolfe Creek one night in an 18-wheeler in the midst of winter.  Our company had a previous driver who lost his rig on Wolfe Creek and went over a 750 foot cliff to the bottom.  Going by that spot was weird to say the least.


The driver that went over had stopped because he had lost tire traction on the ice.  His trailer had slid toward the edge of the cliff.  They got a wrecker to hold the rear of the trailer thinking that as he pulled off with the wrecker holding the trailer he could reach solid pavement. 


The wrecker was too small and the wench cable broke.  His unit slipped over the cliff with him sitting in the driver’s seat.  The driver was not killed, but would be incapacitated for the rest of his life.  One of the greatest fears a trucker faces is becoming incapacitated as a result of an accident.


I was pulling an empty 42’ flatbed trailer when I drove over Wolfe Creek in the dark of the night.  I was scared and was driving extremely slow.  I even had to turn my CB radio down.  The drivers behind me were not necessarily complimenting my driving skills.  They wanted to go faster but could not pass me.


DonnaSummit.jpgI made it safely down and did not relish ever doing that again.  I met another company truck at the bottom of the hill.  He broke me on the CB to find out how the hill was.


I explained that it was rough and that I had slipped a couple of times.  His response, “That’s alright; I have been over it 100s times.  I can handle it!”


The next morning in Pueblo, CO I went to log in.  On the bulletin board was a notice in big red letters – that driver had lost it.  He had let his unit get away from him in Pagosa Springs, CO.  The load of pipe went through the rear of his tractor and he was near death.


I am sure he questioned his comment, “That’s alright; I have been over it 100s times.  I can handle it.”  Drivers get over-confident at times when they travel the same terrain over and over again.


California has some extremely dangerous passes.  The Highway Department in California took an old line driver who had driven over Donna Summit for many years.  They had him mark the areas of concern coming down the pass.


At critical points over the pass, the signs would instruct drivers to let the brakes go so they could cool down.  At other points the signs instructed drivers to start backing down for curves up ahead.


It was a tremendous help for inexperienced drivers going over Donna Summit.  Old line drivers would even watch for the signs to assist them in going down.


I had all the requirements needed for over the road driving.  I had taught myself to drive while working for my uncle who had 3 18-wheelers that went to California from East Texas each week.  It was my job to service the units for the next load.  The tractors would have to be moved about the yard as I made the yard adjustments.


I started getting to work early each morning and would take one of the tractors down the highway.  I experimented until I learned how to synchronize the revolutions per minute (rpms) of the engine with the speed and the gear ratios.  It was a lot of starting and stopping before I learned, but soon I could safely and smoothly go down the highway shifting gears like a pro.


Later, I had a wooden pallet company in Houston.  One of my greatest joys was buying my first tractor and trailer for hauling lumber and the pallets.  It was like I went into the wooden pallet business just so I could get to the point I would need an 18-wheeler.  When I finally got it, I would not let anyone drive it – I was so proud of it.


COEInternational.gifMy first 18-wheeler was a 1973 cab over International tractor with a 335 horsepower Cummins engine.  It was equipped with a Jake Brake, and a 13 Speed Road Ranger transmission.  I added two 8’ chrome exhaust stacks without mufflers.  I purchased a 42’ flatbed trailer to haul the lumber and pallets.


With the Jake Brake, you could actually brake the unit with the engine.  You reduce the fuel feed to the engine and that would compress the pistons.  Bottom line; reduce the fuel to the engine and the unit drags back.


But when you do this, you got a muffled ‘budden’ sound from the engine.  Remove the mufflers and add the twin stacks – it becomes a loud ‘blaadder’ sound many decibels higher than the normal ‘budden’.


If you needed to pass a 4-wheeler, you ease up to the vehicle in front of you and turn the Jake on.  Let off the fuel supply and the immediate engine drag goes into effect.  The loud ‘blaadder’ without mufflers would cause the people in the vehicle in front of you to think you are running over them.  They would be scared out of their wits.


We called it a neck popper as people would spin around to see what was barreling down on them.  They would immediately pull over and let you go.


That is why you see signs coming into metropolitan areas saying “No Engine Brakes”.  Residents have complained of the noise in the middle of the night.  18-wheelers coming in and braking down with an engine brake is much louder than using the standard service brakes.


I kept my commercial driving license active from those early years and needed only to have a physical along with a medical certification card to complete the documentation for driving for Overland Stage.  It was a win win.  They got an experienced driver and I got paid!