Finn Murphy makes $250K per annum moving wealthy clients, but gets no respect on the road from fellow long-haul truckers.
Loveland Pass, Colorado, on US Route 6 summits at 11,991 feet. Thatâ€™s where Iâ€™m headed, having decided to skip the congestion at the Eisenhower Tunnel. Going up a steep grade is never as bad as going down, though negotiating thirty-five tons of tractor-trailer around the hairpin turns is a bit of a challenge. I have to use both lanes to keep my 53-foot trailer clear of the ditches on the right side and hope nobody coming down is sending a text or sightseeing.
At the top of the pass, high up in my Freightliner Columbia tractor pulling a spanking-new, fully loaded custom moving van, I reckon I can say Iâ€™m at an even 12,000 feet. When I look down, the world disappears into a miasma of fog and wind and snow, even though itâ€™s July. The road signs are clear enough, thoughâ€” the first one says runaway truck ramp 1.5 miles. Next one: speed limit 35 mph for vehicles with gross weight over 26,000 lbs. Next one: are your brakes cool and adjusted? Next one: all commercial vehicles are required to carry chains september 1â€”may 31. I run through the checklist in my mind. Letâ€™s see: 1.5 miles to the runaway ramp is too far to do me any good if the worst happens, and 35 miles per hour sounds really fast. My brakes are cool, but adjusted? I hope so, but no mechanic signs off on brake adjustments in these litigious days. Chains? I have chains in my equipment compartment, required or not, but they wonâ€™t save my life sitting where they are. Besides, I figure the bad weather will last for only the first thousand feet. The practical aspects of putting on chains in a snowstorm, with no pullover spot, in pitch dark, at 12,000 feet, in a gale, and wearing only a T-shirt, is a prospect Dante never considered in enumerating his circles of hell. The other option is to keep rollingâ€”maybe Iâ€™ll be crushed by my truck at the bottom of a scree field, maybe I wonâ€™t. I roll. …
I downshift my thirteen-speed transmission to fifth gear, slow to 23 mph, and set my Jake brake to all eight cylinders. A Jake brake is an air-compression inhibitor that turns my engine into the primary braking system. It sounds like a machine gun beneath my feet as it works to keep 70,000 pounds of steel and rubber under control. I watch the tachometer, which tells me my engine speed, and when it redlines at 2,200 rpm Iâ€™m at 28 mph. I brush the brakes to bring her back down to 23. If itâ€™s going to happen, itâ€™s going to happen now. My tender touch might cause the heavy trailer to slide away and Iâ€™ll be able to read the logo in reverse legend from my mirrors. Itâ€™s called a jackknife. Once it starts, you canâ€™t stop it. In a jackknife the trailer comes all the way around, takes both lanes, and crushes against the cab until the whole thing comes to a crashing stop at the bottom of the abyss or against the granite side of the Rockies.
It doesnâ€™t happen, this time, but the weatherâ€™s getting worse. I hit 28 again, caress the brake back down to 23, and start the sequence again. Fondle the brake, watch the mirrors, feel the machine, check the tach, listen to the Jake, and watch the air pressure. The air gauge read 120 psi at the summit; now it reads 80. At 60 an alarm will go off, and at 40 the brakes will automatically lock or just give up. Never mind that now, just donâ€™t go past 28 and keep coaxing her back down to 23. Iâ€™ll do this twenty or thirty times over the next half an hour, never knowing if the trailer will hit a bit of ice, the air compressor will give up, the Jake will disengage, or someone will slam on the brakes in front of me. My CB radio is on (I usually turn it off on mountain passes), and I can hear the commentary from the big-truck drivers behind me.
â€œYo, Joyce Van Lines, first time in the mountains? Get the fuck off the road! I canâ€™t make any money at fifteen miles an hour!â€ â€œYo, Joyce, you from Connecticut? Is that in the Yewnited States? Pull into the fuckinâ€™ runaway ramp, asshole, and let some
â€œYo, Joyce, I can smell the mess in your pants from inside my cab.â€
Iâ€™ve heard this patter many times on big-mountain roads. Iâ€™m not entirely impervious to the contempt of the freighthauling cowboys.
Toward the bottom, on the straightaway, they all pass me.