By Jim Blankenship
March 9, 1998. Gus Parker was trying to make it to Salt Lake City, Utah to deliver a load of steel beams by 8:00 a.m. the next morning. As he pushed the old Peterbilt to its limits, he could hear the engine growl and feel the vibration that comes with the full application of 500 horsepower.
He had just begun his climb up the mountain and knew he still had about 40 miles to the summit. The outside temperature was 33 degrees and it had been raining all day. Gus knew that the temperature would drop as he climbed higher. He considered his options. He could shut down for the night at Annie Mae’s Café, just up the road, as he had done many times before, but then he’d miss his delivery appointment the next morning and would be unable to unload until 4:00 p.m. That would cause him to miss his next load, scheduled to pick up at 1:00 p.m., and if he missed this load, he’d never find another load going home and would miss his daughter’s birthday party.
Gus Parker’s tired mind drifted back to the last time he had called home.
“Daddy,” the familiar, sweet, little voice on the phone had said, “are you gonna be home for my birthday?”“Yes,” Gus had told his five-year-old daughter, “Daddy will be home when you wake up on your birthday.”
He’d made this promise just after arranging the loads that would take him back to Houston, Texas. From Houston, he could deadhead 300 miles to his hometown of Blossom, Texas. The arrangements were made, contracts signed; now all he had to do was live up to his end of the bargain.
There really were no options… he had to make it. He had missed too many birthdays and anniversaries, and had no intentions of missing this one.
“Westbound?” came the crackling voice over the CB radio.
Gus grabbed the microphone hanging just above his head, “Yea, go ahead eastbound,” replied Gus to the driver of the oncoming truck.
“Man, you got some bad road ahead of you!” said the driver of the eastbound truck who had just made it over the mountain Gus was climbing.
“Yea, I’ve been expecting it…how far up does the ice start?” asked Gus.
“I got off the ice about five miles back. I mean to tell you, that summit was treacherous!” the driver replied.
Gus was keeping a close eye on the thermometer attached to the west coast mirror mounted on the door of the big red Pete.
Water was now beginning to freeze on his windshield and on the mirror, which meant that it was also freezing on the road. Gus eased up on the power. With this heavy load, his truck weighed close to eighty thousand pounds. On a flat highway, this was good; more weight, more traction, but he wasn’t on a flat highway.
The Peterbilt had to pull that weight up a steep incline. Then try to hold the weight back once he started down the other side.
He was now losing speed and the engine was beginning to lug down. Gus stepped on the clutch, revved the powerful Caterpillar engine and dropped the transmission into the next lower gear. He had to be careful because the lower gear meant more power to the ground, increasing his chances for a spin-out. A spin-out going up a mountain often meant total shutdown, and possibly even a backward slide.
Gus didn’t even want to think about that. He kept the throttle just deep enough to maintain the pull.
Eventually, Gus was at the summit where he saw a wide pullout area where trucks had been stopping. He pulled the truck onto the wide shoulder, set the air brakes and climbed down from the cab without his coat, knowing that the cold air would sharpen his senses.
He had been driving for thirty-seven hours straight. He knew this was against every regulation in the book, but it was the only way he could make it home. He walked around the back of the trailer, checking lights and kicking large chunks of ice off the trailer.
“Well, Mr. Truck driver,” he said aloud to himself, “ya gotta get it started if ya wanna get it done.”
Just as he reached for the door handle, his feet slipped from under him and he fell onto the icy pavement. Unhurt, he arose and climbed into the truck, laughing at what he must’ve looked like sprawled out on the icy ground, thankful there was nobody else around to laugh at him.
Gus reached over to his control panel and flipped the switch turning on his headlights and taillights, then bowed his head for a short prayer.
“Dear Heavenly Father, please ride down this mountain with me and give me the strength and wisdom I need to make it safely to the bottom.”
He then pushed in the yellow knob releasing the brakes and began his slow descent. His mind drifted back to the moment when he’d fallen. He couldn’t even walk on this stuff, how was he supposed to pilot an eighty thousand pound, sixty-five foot tractor-trailer down this icy mountain?
As he rounded a curve, he saw the taillights of another truck. He glanced down at the speedometer…20 miles per hour. He could see that he was closing in on the truck ahead of him but if he applied the brakes harder, the trailer tires might lock up and he’d be in a jack-knife. No choice. He applied more pressure to the brake pedal and saw the speedometer needle begin to slowly fall. His eyes were constantly moving…the speedometer…the mirrors… the truck ahead of him…the tachometer. His senses were as sharp as they had ever been.
He listened to the pitch of the engine, knowing that any change would mean a stalled drive axle. Another glance into the mirrors to make sure the lights on the end of the trailer were still both visible. The absence of the red marker lights would tell him that the trailer was sliding. He saw a red light in each mirror, then just as he looked ahead, he saw the tail lights of the truck just a quarter mile ahead of him suddenly drift to the right, then come to a sudden stop into the side of the embankment!
The truck ahead of him had jack-knifed! There was no way he could stop and offer assistance. Gus aimed for the narrow gap between the wrecked truck on the right, and the steep embankment on the left. Fortunately, there was no oncoming traffic and Gus was able to pass through without hitting the jackknifed truck.
His heart was still pumping hard from the rush of adrenaline when he heard the engine speed fall to an idle.
His drive axles had locked up! He quickly hit the clutch, revved the engine, and slowly released the clutch, then felt a jolt from the right as the wheels began to turn again. He had drifted out of line and had recovered, but now he was moving much too fast! He glanced down at the speedometer…42 miles per hour…much too fast!
He applied pressure to the brakes and didn’t feel the drag that always came when he stepped on the brakes. He looked into his left mirror…no marker light…right mirror…all he could see was the side of his trailer. His trailer tires had locked up and now the rear end of his trailer was slowly drifting to the right!
The embankment that had saved the other driver from going over the cliff was far behind him, leaving a nine hundred-foot drop to the bottom of the canyon.
Gus steered to the left in a frantic attempt to at least stay on the road. He felt the end of his trailer hit the guardrail. He released the brakes to allow the trailer tires to start turning again, to regain traction. The truck was now picking up speed. The large red tractor was in the oncoming lane and the trailer was pointing dangerously at the edge of the cliff. In his mind’s eye, Gus could see a man trapped behind the wheel of a tractor trailer tumbling end over end down the side of a mountain toward certain death.
He saw the faces of his wife and his daughter silhouetted against the dark night.
He knew that his only chance was to accelerate and try to pull the trailer back in line. He stepped on the clutch, shifted into a higher gear then stepped on the throttle. He could hear the large engine power up. To his relief and amazement, the rear of the trailer began to swing back to the left to take its place behind the tractor.
His problems were far from over. He was now traveling at sixty miles per hour, down a mountain on solid ice!
He took a deep breath, dreading what he knew was inevitable. He gently stepped on the brakes and felt a slight drag. This was good. At this point, even the slightest amount of control was a relief.
Just then his cell phone rang. He gave a nervous laugh; this call would just have to wait. His speed was falling slowly, engine speed now low enough to make a downshift. The downshift made and back on the brakes…he felt the slight but welcome feeling of the brakes holding back the eighty thousand pound truck, then he saw it. A sign on the shoulder warned of a sharp curve ahead, 20 mph maximum speed.
“Oh God!” he cried out, “PLEASE HELP ME!”
He could feel the truck slowing ever so slightly, but he had to lose at least 40 miles per hour in the next two thousand feet! He released his breath, realizing that he’d been holding it and pushed down harder on the brake. Once again, the trailer brakes locked up and began to slide. Gus saw the curve coming up too fast, saw the trailer begin to drift to the right and realized his luck had just ran out.
Suddenly, he could see himself as if he were standing beside the road. He saw the truck hurtling through the dark, rainy night toward its destruction. He had to jump. He reached for the door handle to open the door and remembered his seat belt was still fastened.
He could barely hear the rush of wind over the sound of his heart pounding in his ears. His heart was racing and his hands were shaking as he tried to disconnect the seat belt. It was jammed! His hands were shaking so badly that he couldn’t free himself from the jammed belt. He was going to go over the cliff with the load of steel! Looking down into the darkness of the cab, trying to free himself from what would surely become his coffin, he finally managed to free the buckle.
When he looked up, in the windshield he saw the reflection of his face cast in the green glow of the instrument panel. He was looking into the face of a dead man. Now, reaching for the door handle again, turning in his seat, he felt an odd sensation and realized that the brakes were once again dragging! He released the door handle and grabbed the large steering wheel. A quick look in the mirrors showed him that the trailer had come back into line! He’d come far enough down the mountain that he was no longer on ice! Just wet road! He looked at the thermometer and saw that it read 34 degrees.
Just then he realized that if his seat belt hadn’t jammed, he would have jumped from the truck at sixty miles per hour. He knew that he wouldn’t have survived the jump. He also knew that the seat belt had never before jammed in the nine years he’d owned the truck.
“Thank you, Jesus,” he exclaimed with tears streaming down his face, “thank you.”
His speed had fallen to just under twenty miles per hour and he was safely rounding the curve. As he came out of the curve, the road leveled off.
As Gus wiped tears from his face, the cell phone rang again. “Hello,” he answered in a shaky voice.
“Hi honey.” It was his wife. The tears came again at the sound of her voice, knowing how close he’d come to never hearing it again. “Where are you? I tried to call earlier,” she asked.
“I was kinda busy. I’m about seventy miles from Salt Lake, should be there in time to catch a short nap before I unload.” As they talked, she told him about her day, how little Charity had made snow angels in the back yard, and how the dog had gotten into the house and made a mess of her kitchen. She couldn’t hear the tears that were flowing down her husband’s face as he treasured every word.
“So you will make it home for Charity’s party?” she asked.
“Yes, if God’s willing…and I think he is.”
“Well you be careful, and don’t push it too hard,” she said, worrying about him as she always did, “how are the roads?” she asked.
“High and dry,” he lied. She didn’t need to know. “I love you Shelby,” he said, trying not to choke up.
“I love you too…hurry home.”