Driving a car in the ice and snow can be nerve-wracking, so imagine driving an 18-wheeler in the stuff.
Dozens of truck drivers hanging out at the Arrowhead Travel Plaza on Monday morning didn’t have to imagine. Some had just come down Cabbage Hill. Others prepared to ascend the steep, curvy stretch of mountain highway on their way east.
Long-haul trucker Dan MacIntyre chatted with four other drivers on the way from the parking lot to main building near Interstate 84’s exit 216. Big, wet flakes swirled around the men as they shared information about chain restrictions and weather forecasts. MacIntyre, a Canadian from Toronto, had steered his 18-wheeler filled with instrumental equipment down Cabbage on Sunday night and needed to get to Portland.
“They were telling me the roads were insane. You have to put your chains on,” he said, after leaving the knot of other drivers. “I don’t expect I’m going anywhere.”
At the moment, a chain restriction for trucks was in effect both directions. MacIntyre prepared to settle in for the day. The 27-year veteran said if conditions require chains, then you shouldn’t be driving. He owns a set, but they sit inside his truck, clean and unused in the original box.
MacIntyre lives in his truck and logs between 15,000 and 17,000 miles each month. The former truck driver trainer ticked off some principles he drilled into his students.
“The speed limit is not the number posted on the sign,” he said. “It is the speed you can safely go down the highway and not lose your load. Drive to the conditions.”
He urged his students to check mirrors often, learn to read the roads, refrain from rushing, rest when tired and to be wary in snow, ice, fog and high winds.
MacIntyre’s phone has dozens of photos of truck accidents the trucker has come upon or seen happen right in front of him. He looks at the pictures to remind himself to take it slow and easy. One shot shows the aftermath of an 18-wheeler gone airborne over the edge of an overpass and landing on the freeway below.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 4,761 people died in collisions involving large trucks in 2017 (the latest year reported). About 1,300 of the deaths were truckers, while the remaining victims died in other vehicles or were pedestrians.
So far, MacIntyre has only had one minor accident himself. It happened when he hydroplaned into the back of a car after hitting his brakes. He aims to make that his last and only.
Many of the truckers at Arrowhead on Monday rested up for the trek ahead. In the truck parking area, Yakima driver Travis Mosley waited it out in the cab of his 18-wheeler. During his drive from Tacoma, he’d encountered blowing snow, but hadn’t been required to don chains until Pendleton. He had decided to take a pause to see if that changed before hauling his load of Polaris side by sides east to Baker City, and then to John Day.
He listened carefully to his CB as a fellow trucker gave an update. Chaining restrictions had been lifted going to the west, he reported. Restrictions remained for eastbound truckers like Mosley.
“That’s all we’re doing right now is listening,” Mosley said. “I’m going to wait it out for a couple of hours to see if it gets better.”
Mosley has learned to be patient.
“I watch TV and Youtube,” he said. “I catch up on my sleep.”
A few trucks away, Idaho truck driver Charles Nulph knelt in the slush and chained up five wheels of his Freightliner truck and trailer. He chained each tire with gloved hands and used a chain tighter to cinch them snug. Shortly he planned to climb Cabbage Hill with a load of frozen french fries.
The trucker seemed undaunted at the prospect.
“I’ve done it so many times,” Nulph said.
Cabbage is nothing, he said, compared with some of the other steeper mountains he has driven. He remembers going over snowy White Bird Summit (in north central Idaho), carrying thousands of pounds of grain in a double trailer. The grade there, he said, is between 7 and 8 percent.
MacIntyre weighed his own plans for getting back onto the snowy freeway, saying the privilege of driving an 18-wheeler is something he doesn’t take lightly.
“It’s a big responsibility,” he said. “If I collide with you in your car, I’ll walk away. You may not.”
He said driving trucks can be risky business.
“We all have our horror stories,” MacIntyre said.
However, he has come to trust his instincts and the procedures he has developed over the years. One habit is never driving when fatigued, whatever the weather. In doing so, he tunes out the inner pressure to hurry on.
“If you’re not moving, you’re not making money,” he said. “But, if I’m tired, I pull over. Whether it’s been one hour or 10 hours, my life is worth it.”