White-knuckle roads

| May 07, 2008

Just past the truck brake-inspection station on infamous Monteagle Mountain, east-bound I-24 in Tennessee, the long dangerous downgrade begins.

The ideal road, says America’s Road Team Captain Albert Adams, is “an interstate highway on a nice, sunny, 70-degree day with light traffic.”

It’s too bad not every road can be ideal.

Statistically, the most dangerous places to drive are two-lane country roads, but for over-the-road truckers, it’s the curvy, the foggy, the snow-drowned stretches of major interstates where big accidents happen that stick in the memory for years to come.

We asked some of the most talented and experienced drivers in the nation to tell us which roads make even their stomachs tense up and knuckles turn white. These are the roads that inspire truckstop and CB stories – some tall tales and some, regrettably, all too true.

On a storm track
The combination of snow, ice, high winds and heavy traffic on the stretch of I-80 between Laramie, Wyo., and the Utah border makes the road so deadly it has inspired the nickname “Snow Chi Minh Trail,” after the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam, less a road than a web of jungle paths the North Vietnamese supplied their armies through during the Vietnam War.

Winter weather conditions make Snow Chi Minh not only dangerous but a time-waster, says 20-year veteran driver Terry Robinson. The road itself isn’t bad, he says, but in the winter it’s often shut down by accidents, leaving truckers stranded for hours to wait it out.

“It just happens to be in a place where it’s very susceptible to winter conditions and a high volume of truck travel in both directions,” says the 67-year-old Robinson, who drives mostly in the West. “We get very slick conditions and winds that blow up to 50-75 mph across that highway. It’s not infrequent, either – it seems to be on a storm track.”

The interstate is lined with snow fences to collect snow so it doesn’t blow or collect on the road, but the snow fences can’t stop wind or ice.

Though Robinson drives plenty of snowy mountain passes, “I-80 is the one I would prefer to avoid in the winter if at all possible,” he says. “There’s so much traffic, and they have so many different occurrences with vehicles.” He says it’s closed often.

Because it’s a main thoroughfare through the West, it’s tough to avoid if you’re hauling a load in the area. But before you travel it, check with the Wyoming Department of Transportation (www.wyoroad.info) for road closures and dangerous conditions.

Worthy of a song
On I-24 between Nashville and Chattanooga, Tenn., there’s a hill that’s not the steepest in the country but has a reputation steep enough to have reached the likes of Johnny Cash, who recorded a song about it in 1986. “Your life is in your hands when you start down that long steep grade on Monteagle Mountain,” Cash sings, and the picture he paints gets even grimmer:

When I started down Monteagle,
the brakes just wouldn’t hold.
I knew I was in trouble
and ’bout to lose control.
The runaway ramp was waitin’,
I saw the warning sign.
I said, ‘Lord help me make it -
have mercy on this soul of mine.’

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