Bye-Bye Blacktop

| April 07, 2005

One of the most difficult aspects of off-road driving is not knowing what’s up ahead.

Do you carry a chainsaw with you for those common everyday emergencies? Or, if there’s a tough grade ahead, do you simply wait for a bulldozer to come tow you up it, or let it hook on behind to slow your descent? Not much is the same when a driver leaves the highway and heads into woods, mountains or deserts.

What do you think would happen if you suddenly took a remote interstate exit ramp, rolled along an access road for a while, then turned down a dirt, clay, caliche, gravel, mud or white rock road?

“Pavement is a luxury,” says Tim Dodge, a long-time off-road and oilfield driver who is now operations manager for Link Energy’s “Bayou Region,” from Houston east to the Mississippi. “And we not only run off-road, we run off-road at night.”

Link Energy is one of the largest lease crude oil purchasers in North America and a major transporter and marketer of crude oil in the United States and Canada, buying crude oil from lease owners and transporting from the wellhead to the company’s pipeline, and truck transportation systems is the company’s core business.

“I started driving for the company 18 years ago,” says Dodge, based in Jennings, La. “It’s definitely different than driving over the road.”

One of those differences is how the truck handles the weather. A hard rain can impair vision and slick up the roads even for the guys driving on pavement. But imagine what it can do to the guys driving on dirt.

Rain is the biggest problem for all off-roaders, day in and day out, Dodge says. Driving on mud, he says, is very similar to what the OTR driver experiences when he is driving on ice.

“A dirt road, in fact most unsealed roads, can change really quickly when it rains,” he says. “On the highway, rain is a problem, but it’s usually a predictable problem. Off-road the road can actually disappear from view, shoulders can wash away and you can suddenly find yourself stuck in the middle of a road.

“Sometimes we know where we’re going, and we know the road has a good base and can stand up to rain. But if it’s a new driver, or we aren’t sure that the road was built with a good base, we just have to shut down and wait out the rain.”

In winter, Dodge says, the company regularly has to pull out trucks that have become stuck because of sudden weather changes or unexpected road problems.

“In the Rockies, some of our trucks get to remote locations and meet a dozer,” he says. “He pulls them up the mountain and after the tanker is loaded, the dozer gets behind and hooks to the tanker and eases him back down the mountain.”

Off-road drivers regularly run into the unexpected. “Someone might build a fairly good road into a new drilling site, but then may not keep it up over the years,” Dodge says. “Some of these drilling sites are pretty remote, and over time the roads that were used when the wells were built have all but disappeared. But we have to get in there. So you can find yourself on a road overgrown with trees where your truck is pushing aside branches.”

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