White-knuckle roads

| May 07, 2008

The fictional trucker in his song eventually makes it down the hill in one piece, and so do most of the thousands of truckers who travel it each year. The “mountain” is really a plateau with a long slope stretching over 7 miles, but it can give your brakes and transmission a workout.

Even tough truckers like Walbert Trucking driver Allen Yearly, based in mountainous western Virginia, prefer to avoid Monteagle Mountain. Yearly, who started his driving career in a coal truck, saw his share of challenging, dangerous roads hauling to and from the mines. “Those roads are just narrow, slick and curvy, and when you’re hauling a heavy load and the road is angled,” he says, “the load can get to rocking and turn you over. You have to be real careful.”

He says there’s absolutely no analogous experience on the National Highway System: “After I got used to those coal roads, nothing else so much bothers me.”

At the same time, he says the interstates through the Appalachians in the East present even greater challenges than the switchbacks in the Rockies out West. “Out there, you can usually see pretty far ahead,” he says. Not the case, in particular, on the infamous Monteagle Mountain. When Yearly can’t avoid driving it, he’ll take it slow, all the while gearing in inverse proportion to the weight of his load on the downgrade: the heavier the load, the lower the gear. With the 10-speed tranny in his 1992 Freightliner he’ll take the grade usually in 6th gear, he says, if fully loaded.

To plan ahead before you venture down Monteagle Mountain, check for accidents, weather and construction on the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s SmartWay interactive map (tdot.state.tn.us, click TDOT Smartway logo).

Rocky mountain high
Colorado’s I-70 and its major tributaries throughout the state have perhaps more chancy mountain passes than any area of the country. Trucker Robinson, who drives for Quality Wholesale Supply, based in Denver, travels them all.

With colorful names like Wolf Creek Pass (which inspired an album cover song by Convoy crooner C.W. McCall) and Rabbit Ears Pass, these roads offer that old-fashioned Western kind of danger only the Rocky Mountains can provide, with a bonus dash of recreational traffic on the weekends.

“Wolf Creek Pass is a two-lane road that goes through one of the more heavy snowfall areas in the state,” Robinson says. “Very twisty-turny, a lot of elevation change, and an extremely slow pass to negotiate in the winter.

“Rabbit Ears is going into Steamboat Springs, a resort town. It’s pretty narrow in some places, and it gets a lot of snow also, and it’s frequently required for commercial trucks to chain up.”

Meanwhile, the heavily traveled I-70 is a multi-lane highway, but in the winter it’s frequently snow-packed and icy, Robinson says.

“I drive I-70 a lot, west from Denver through Eisenhower Tunnel and Vail Pass, which are notorious for chain laws,” he says.

By now, he’s used to them all, but a lot of drivers he’s met prefer to wait for daylight to travel the mountain passes. “It’s common to find truckers in the rest areas waiting out the nighttime conditions,” he says. “A lot of times in the dark, if it snows or is still snowing, you can’t see the lane lines. A lot of four-wheelers try to drive in the middle because they can’t see the lanes.”

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