By George Tate © 2009
West to East on I-70 headed for Denver, Colorado is the most beautiful drive a person could ever imagine in their wildest dreams. The mountains and scenery are breathtaking. Living on the edge of death is the most fun a person experiences in life. People only dream of these scenes in their mind's eye before morning consciousness takes the thrill from them.
Hey, it's like that guy said at the table night before last in Vegas, "Don't play poker with me baby, I ain't 'fraid to lose." Sure enough he didn't lie. He couldn't lose. Sad faces left at 4 o'clock in the morning Pacific, but Mr. No Skeered was smiling all the way to the cashier.
As the beauty of the roadside went past, he took another sip of coffee, bitter shit that he paid too much for at that mud hole of a truck stop at Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Having gotten up late he had been on a dead run to deliver an overweight, oversize load to the yard in Denver by 12 noon. This load was a bitch from its beginning in Fontana, California. It was odd pieces of equipment in all shapes and sizes that had to be permitted by the traveled states because it was too heavy and a bit wide. A crane boom had to be loaded on its side and made the whole stinking mess shift and creak. It was unstable and the trouble was trying to get a secure chain and binder on the load, the web straps were much too light and the chains and binders had to be checked on a regular tick. What a pain.
For the most part the trip through California, Nevada, and Utah were gravy. The Vegas poker game was to relieve the tension of the load, including all his piled up anger and tension since her passing. Losing the $500 didn't help, but the drunk on the free liquor didn't hurt.
Now in Colorado it was going to be an uphill grind, upward through the Eisenhower tunnel and down, real down!
Gatlin Hughes was a Louisiana oil patcher, born in Shreveport and raised on crude and raw gas, Community coffee, and crawdads. When the oil business went bust in 1984 his unemployment benefits went far enough to send him to truck driving school. There he learned the in and out of driving, and he met Barbara Turnbull. Shapely, blond, and cute, she was to become the driving force of his life. She too had felt the pangs of the oil bust. At 38, her first marriage was long gone and her two children were grown and married. She was an unemployed land secretary searching for an avenue, preferably OUT.
As luck would have it they both graduated at the same time. After the ceremony the graduating group partied at a local Bossier City bar. It was there they decided to team up. Gatlin had an eye on Barbara from their first meeting. He knew he needed to make a move. He was a tall, thin drink of water with not too many rough edges for a 41 year old. He had never married. They both loved each other, the road and the life they shared. The pain that was coming, shouldn't have been, but was.
On the road she began to suffer. Returning home, the doctor had frightening news of an illness he deemed incurable. Soon her life was at an end and Gatlin was dead broke, running on empty, and aimless. The loneliness returned full force, with it was his doubt and dismay.
Gatlin drifted into thoughts about past runs through this area. Spring was always a nice time of year, the snow and ski crowd were gone and travel eastbound into the Johnson bore was light. Gatlin was glad because with a wider than usual load he spent a lot of mirror time keeping that crane elbow off the left wall. Going through the tunnel required him to take his half out of the middle which was very unpopular with people behind.
The bore is 1.7 miles from start to finish and two lanes wide. The straight pipes on Gatlin's old '90 classic Pete sang as the tunnel entrance went by. The old Pete was powered by a 550 Caterpillar Engine with a 15 speed transmission and brake saver. Barbara always loved how the jakes rumbled on the downside of the tunnel. Just a kid at heart she was always testing the wild side.
"PPPPSSSSSSSSSSSSSTT," that was an unfamiliar sound. Gatlin sat straight in the seat and gave his full attention to the truck. Any strange sound needed immediate attention, especially escaping air. Inside a tunnel sounds are amplified and this was not the usual sound that a brake air dryer makes during its drying cycle. Brakes were chief worry at this point, Gatlin was over two miles up and loaded to 89000 pounds. He didn't hear it again but decided to stop at the Colorado Chicken Koop at the bottom of the hill and check for a problem. In a minute or so he would know how BAD his call was on this decision.
The rumble of the pipes was gone at the tunnel exit and Gatlin began grabbing gears for the downhill run. The uphill climb worked out fine today and the old Pete didn't miss a beat. He was glad because he was late and he needed to get to town. He wouldn't have to sweat getting up speed it was all downhill from here to Denver. The jakes and brake saver were on and he was set to roll downhill in 5 low, a gear he believed would not extend the RPM's beyond range. Staying off the brakes was critically important as brake fires on this side of the tunnel were common. He began a slow descent to the first turn, stabbing his brakes to keep the RPM's out of the red.
Gatlin thought about the time, 39 minutes to the CDOT koop and one and a quarter hours from the tunnel to Downtown Denver. He could make it. This was a very steep grade which turned into a wooly run after the koop at Dumont, Colorado. The first part was a cake walk compared to the 6% grade yet to come. Winding his way down the hill he began to work the brakes a little harder and noticed that he wasn't slowing down. The old Cat could take the pressure and the jakes and retarder were working, engine oil pressure and oil temperature were ok and the brake saver was working, but the truck was not slowing like it should during his brake stabs.
"What the hell," he thought. He just kept on stabbing the brakes shortly he looked in the left mirror during one of his stabs and saw the telltale smoke coming off the trailer. It wasn't going to be long before this little cloud of smoke was gonna blaze. He had to stop “PPPPSSSSSSSSSSSTTTT” this truck, NOW.
Coming to the reality stopping this weight with marginal braking was like pissing in the wind, Gatlin started checking his options, he was over revving and the engine and oil temp had begun their rise because of both engine and brake saver stress. The brake saver uses engine oil as a mechanism working against the engine RPM's to slow the drive train. The spent hot oil returns to the engine to be cooled. In this case cooling is impossible. The Jakes use engine compression to do the same job but the over revving produces engine heat and breaks down the oils lubrication ability. To make a long story short, because of continued over revving everything is HOT and going to BOIL. Oil Temperature is at 200 degrees and water is the same.
"So far ok but not so good," were words from Gatlin's mouth that no one heard.
Stopping on a downhill with little breakdown room was dangerous and Gatlin went over all the options. He made the choice to go up one gear and begin to drift the turns, the speed would pick up but the brake use might be less. The shift came smooth and the speed came up, Fifty-four miles per hour topped out his comfort zone and he begin doing the switchbacks using the whole road while braking in the turns to slow down. He was still seeing more smoke off the rears and the "PSST" became louder. He had made it a little over half way to Dumont in a pretty short amount of time, the engine heat and oil temperature were rising rapidly now close to 212 degrees. Trying to slow the wagon below the REDLINE became impossible and he had no brake pedal to mash. At this point, he knew all he had were the trailer's brake system controlled by the "trolley valve" on the right of his steering wheel. His trailer brakes were already hot and trying to stop the vehicle using only those brakes was a fire looking for a-happening.
Sharp turns were becoming harder to maneuver and the use of the trolley valve became less effective and produced more smoke from the trailer tires. The whole system was getting to the end of its rope. Suddenly engine oil temperature and water temperature shot up, the speed of the truck did the same, and during one of the turns Gatlin noticed a streak of liquid on the road that was now following his travel path. The brake saver seal had blown out because of heating and Gatlin was now in a free fall while losing engine oil, there was no way the Pete's compression brake alone could ever slow him at this speed.
Gatlin was at the end of his wits. He began to think about Barbara's death and how he wished at the funeral he could join her. His mind flashed a picture of the truck falling off a steep ravine. "At least it would be quick," was his afterthought. From deep inside came a primal urge that began at the small of his being and exploded when it hit his mouth.
He was now filled with adrenaline. His fear was tossed to the side of I-70 and in its place was a feeling of immortality.
He began to take full corners catching oncoming rails like a stock car pro. He had now lost all his primary air and the trolley valve was getting weaker on each use. Smoke was everywhere in the cab and trailing for as far as he could see behind him. The Dumont scales were coming fast, he past the overhead sensor and a quarter mile later left the koop in a cloud of smoke that drifted into the pines. Barbara was present, he felt her, and he felt assured, he wasn't afraid.
Air brakes, without air, lock down against the hubs. This is fine for stopping a truck at slow speed but not at sixty five miles per hour with 89000 of weight on board. The binders lock down and then BURN UP. The fire on the trailer became very visible; flame shot from the hubs along with sparks from the metal calipers.
"TURN IT OFF."
Words came from the blue of Gatlin's mind. They were real he heard them. He had to jiggle his head because of non-belief but he knew it was Barbara.
"It won't be long now, baby," Gatlin screamed at the windshield.
The next turn loomed ahead and right before it was a sign marked "6% GRADE" with a picture of a truck on a rapid descent. "Whoa WE are gonna ROLL now, YEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!"
Gatlin was on a rampage in a truck with three axles on fire doing in excess of 70 miles per hour.
"Turn it off," the words were quiet and serene in an environment of chaos. The truck began to drop into a snakes trail. The turns became hard to handle and Gatlin knew it wouldn't take much to be over a guard rail and down the side on his back, load, tractor, and all. He suddenly cleared his mind and focused on the words, "Turn off the engine, that's it."
Reaching for the key he switched off the engine and the motor suddenly went dead. The truck was slowing but not stopping and the fire was really raging. The truck was in gear and with the brakes locked down the speedo was still reading 55 miles per hour while laying down a smoke trail thick enough to cut with a knife. On this turn Gatlin scraped the rock wall on the left of the trailer while narrowly missing a car that moved into his travel lane to avoid hitting the back of the trailer. Gatlin began to sweat.
A long straight descent came up with another grade marker at 6%, "Well let's get it," Gatlin screamed. He was beyond caring, just wanting the ordeal over one way or the other. The hand he was dealt didn't make a difference, all he wanted was the result. If he died he would be in her arms again. He wished for the negative outcome. "SOON," came again from the blue of Gatlin's mind. It was her voice clear as day. At almost the same time a large turn loomed ahead, Gatlin swung the truck to the left taking all the turn and missed another tractor by inches then the turn switched back to the right and in the hairpin he saw his trailer tires clear a foot of ground.
He saw his saving grace; at the bottom of this hill was an emergency turnout. That was the most beautiful sign he had seen today. Behind him his front driver side trailer tires exploded from the heat and took the rears with them in an eighth of a mile he was on the rims going 40 mph. He was half a mile from the sandy grave where all of this would be over and could see the grooves his rims were etching in the highway. Entering the sand was the best feeling of all as the whole truck began to bounce and sink as though being covered in quicksand. The fires were out but the dead truck was a smoking hulk wallowing in the beach sand that stretched one quarter of a mile up the side of the mountain.
He jumped from the top step into the sand and walked the few yards to pavement. He felt surprisingly alive, calm and collected. Lighting a cigarette, he spotted the Colorado DOT's blue lights in the hazy smoke. He took a deep breath and sighed, "Well baby, can ya save me from the paperwork too?"
George Tate is a former over the road driver of fourteen years that love's travel, wild wimmin', Pisano Wine, and Omaha 08. When they are a package, watch out.