Downhill Fast, No Brakes

Trucker brothers love to ski icy slopes as fast as they can go.

Imagine truck drivers who like the feel of being on a really slippery slope, a surface that lets them slide without all that nasty friction, and who like to speed downhill through twisting turns on that surface with no brakes.

Robb and Kirk Nordell know how to handle their Peterbilts on ice, but they also know how to handle skis and are prepared to take on the steepest, most daring runs when they hit the slopes. And throughout the winter they stop and ski as they make their southern run out of the great northwest and down into the Los Angeles area.

Veteran truckers, the brothers have been skiing since they were kids growing up around Stanford, Mont. “Snow was a real pain; it meant work and other problems,” recalls Robb. “Snow was not something to look forward to in Montana cattle country. Until we figured we could have fun in it. There was a snow hill not far from where we lived, and one day we decided to see what we could do.”

Kirk went down it first and declared it fun. Robb followed. “I think that was the first time we ‘skied,’ kind of sliding down it,” Robb says. “We were hooked right then. Even today, we think being outside, on a mountain, one on one with nature, trying to do something better than you did it yesterday is like being a kid again.”

What keeps the brothers trucking, keeps them skiing.

“There’s a pride involved in both,” says Robb. “We don’t just drive, and we don’t just ski. We’re trying to get better at it all the time. When we got to where we could do something – maybe a difficult turn – we’d move on and take on some new learning. We both spend a lot of time on the snow working on our techniques. If you’re a pool player, you can always make a better shot, and we can always make a better turn if we keep practicing.”

Striving for improvement extends to their skiing gear. “We don’t go out and buy every new piece of equipment with some new technology that comes out, but we change every now and then because it helps make us better skiers,” Robb says. “For example, when the industry started moving from the longer, skinnier skis to shorter, fatter skis, we held out. But we finally switched because the new ones could make us better skiers.”

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The brothers want to be “all-mountain skiers” – skiers who ski the whole mountain, top
to bottom, facing and handling terrain and trouble as they go.

They apply the same philosophy to their work. “With the trucking business that can mean learning as much about finances and running a company as it does driving,” Robb says.

As part of their quest to become well-rounded skiers, the Nordells seek out the tough spots.

“Today we tend to go out on the hill looking for the steepest, deepest, gnarliest snow on the mountain,” Robb says. “It has something to do with wanting to test yourself and see just what you can do. It also has a lot to do with sitting in a truck hour after hour and thinking, ‘Boy, when I get out of here, I’m going to have some fun.'”

In summer that thought changes a little, says Robb. “We’re sitting hour after hour in the trucks and watching four wheelers race by, and we think, ‘Boy, when I get out of here, I’m going to do some passing of my own.'” That means summer fun on what the Nordells call “scooters” and you and I call Hawgs. Robb and his wife Lori ride ’99 models, and Kirk is still building his new bike, a Big Dog Chopper.

“We remember when we were just starting out, we were the young guns. Now we’re the old guys,” says Robb, 56. Kirk is 60. “I’ve been doing it for 32 years, and he’s been driving 35 years or so. I drive the old-fashioned way, with the windows cracked so I can hear her. I rarely look at the tach or the speedo.”

The two independent owner-operators run classic tractors. Robb’s is a long-wheelbase, extended-hood ’87 Pete 359 with a standup sleeper and a 48-foot stepdeck. Kirk drives a ’85 Pete 359 with a flattop sleeper and a 48-foot double drop deck detachable trailer. Based near Spokane, Wash., they haul loads of roundwood (such as post, rails, etc.) anywhere from an inch around (“swizzle sticks”) to poles 30 feet long with a 28-inch diameter. They run down to the L.A. area and LTL back home.

Of course, when they get home, the first thing they do is head for a ski hill 45 minutes away. And when they’re on the road, the brothers try to have an extra day built into their run to allow for some skiing along the way. Their favorite ski stop on the run south is Lost Trail Powder Mountain ( off Highway 93, 90 miles south of Missoula, Mont., on the Montana-Idaho border and sitting right on top of the Continental Divide.

“If we can’t leave a day early, we’ll call and say we want to stop and ski, and they’ll usually say something like its OK because they don’t need the load that day,” Robb says. “But if they do need we roll on by the hill and keep going. We’re truckers first, skiers second. Business first, goofing off second.”

But Robb didn’t always know he wanted to be a trucker. He went to college for a while and considered becoming a veterinarian like his father.

“I got nearly all the way, but then it was like hitting a wall,” he says. Every spring he went back to Montana to help his dad, who was a vet on a big ranch. Then Robb dropped out of school. ” He told me, ‘You’ve got to do something, so do something you really want to do,'” Robb says. “Whenever I’d gone back to help when I was off for the summer, they’d be shipping the steers out and there’d be 12 or 15 big rigs lined up waiting to load. So I told him, ‘You know, Dad, I’d kind of like to drive one of those.’ I guess that’s the first time it really occurred to me.”

Kirk was already behind the wheel, just back from Vietnam and driving a truck around Lewiston, Mont., improving Forest Service roads and developing springs. “I think he was driving an old Mack with a five and a three. Maybe it was a Ford. I was riding with him one day and we were going down a dirt road, and he was shifting so smooth, I asked him how he did it,” Robb says. “‘Listen to the motor, it’ll tell you when to change.’ That’s about when I developed the bug, and when Dad asked me what I’d do, there wasn’t much doubt.”

Robb started out in cattle hauling, and Kirk switched to heavy-duty trucks and cattle. They both tried other hauls and other locales, then ended up both running California.

“Trucking gives us a lot; it’s lets us follow a passion for skiing,” Robb says. “I love the independence. I figure if I’d been born in the 1860s, I would have ridden for the Pony Express or been a stagecoach driver.”

Animal Adventures
Zoological parks and aquariums aren’t just for kids anymore

At one time, taking the kids to the zoo was an old-fashioned family outing. But today’s zoos have changed, and they’re not just for kids anymore.

They’re places that can still surprise you, make you take a deep breath in awe, laugh or even just smile a lot; they can bring some unscripted fun into your day. You can learn about endangered species and how zoos are helping save them, and you can feel a little bit like a kid again.

Listen to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association: “Zoos are changing. Once upon a time, zoos existed solely for entertaining people. At today’s best zoos, millions of visitors have fun learning about conservation. AZA member zoos and aquariums aren’t just great places to see wildlife – they’re also great places to save wildlife! Zoo and aquarium personnel contribute to biological conservation, education and scientific research all over the world. In 1998 alone, AZA members organized or supported 700 field projects in more than 80 countries. We’re proud of these efforts and want to make sure all this hard work gets noticed.

“North American zoos and aquariums are unrivaled in the business of conservation. They display treasures of the living world – from rainforests to deserts to mountain streams. They conserve habitat, save stranded marine mammals, and breed and reintroduce endangered species. They educate through field trips, classroom curriculum and interactive distance learning. They develop the best research on animal care and implement critical strategies for species survival. They link recreation with conservation through thousands of community events. And they do it on a massive scale – on behalf of millions and millions of visitors each year.”

Check out the AZA’s special conservation projects like the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force (trying to curtail the commercial hunting of wildlife for sale as meat in poor parts of the world), the Giant Panda Conservation Plan (there are less than 1,000 Giant Pandas left in the wild), the Butterfly Conservation Initiative and the Ocean Project on the AZA website (see Follow the Links).

Many zoos are actively involved in breeding programs to try and help species survive that are tottering on the brink of disappearing forever.

The Species Survival Plan (SSP) is a program that gives zoos a chance to acquire endangered species for the purpose of conservation and education. Through this project, endangered species can be preserved for the benefit of future generations. If you learn more about this plan on a visit to a zoo, you may find yourself becoming part of the worldwide effort to save animals from extinction.

Rhinos and gorillas may one day be gone from this planet if we don’t do something to save them. Imagine not being able to take your children or grandchildren to the zoo to see these magnificent creatures. Imagine them not be able to dream of one day going off to far places to find these animals in the wild, in their natural habitat.

The AZA website has a comprehensive list of zoos and aquariums. There’ll be one close to your route because they’re all over the country. Just looking at a handful of states can give you an idea what’s out there.

Take Illinois for example – there are zoos or aquariums in Chicago, Brookfield, Wheaton, Peoria, Springfield, Bloomington and Decatur. The granddaddy of them all is Lincoln Park Zoo, one of America’s oldest and one of the last free zoos in the country. The zoo began in 1868 with the gift of a pair of swans from New York’s Central Park and is now a leader in wildlife conservation, community education and recreation.

Maybe you’re running through the Volunteer State and have to find somewhere to park it for a mandatory break. The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga is the largest freshwater aquarium in the world. It features a spectacular 60-foot canyon and two living forests, where you will see more than 9,000 animals that swim, fly and crawl in natural habitats. There’s a zoo in Nashville, one in Knoxville and one in Memphis. The Memphis Zoo has an internationally recognized animal breeding program to give animals like the lowland gorilla and the snow leopard a second chance at survival. Their enrichment program, Exzooberance, helps make life stimulating and fun for the animals with activities like a ball for tigers to bat, a block of ice hiding frozen treats for bears or a finger-painting session with the gorillas.

If you’re sitting in Florida waiting for a load to head back North, there’s no end of possibilities. You have the giants, such as Sea World in Orlando and Busch Gardens in Tampa. In Miami there’s MetroZoo, with hundreds of animals in natural settings and a claim of being “the only zoo in the continental United States located in a subtropical climate.” This zoo also offers a look at Asian river life in an exhibit where visitors walk among the waterfalls, tropical mist and exotic sounds of wild Asia, among Asian River Otters, Clouded Leopards, Asian Water Monitors and primitive Muntjac Deer. Another exhibit features a pair of Komodo Dragons, the largest, most powerful lizards on earth. These primitive-looking beasts, the national treasure of Indonesia, reach nearly 10 feet long and weigh up to 300 pounds.” At the other end of the state, in Jacksonville, the city zoo has a safari theme and a new exhibit for South American jaguars.

The Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas is home to a number of species on the SSP list, including a Black Rhinoceros, Lowland Gorillas, Siamangs, Siberian Tigers, Red Panda and Red-Ruffed Lemurs. In Missouri both Kansas City and St. Louis have exciting zoos, the latter known for its pioneering work on natural exhibits. Montana offers you the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center just a block away from the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park. You can get an up-close view of live grizzly bears and a pack of gray wolves. The Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center’s primary mission is to provide visitors to the Yellowstone area an opportunity to learn about, view and ultimately appreciate the grizzly bear and gray wolf.

And if you’re running I-10 through Louisiana, how does a stopover in New Orleans sound? Apart from the food and entertainment, you’ll also find the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas/Entergy IMAX Theatre, where “the underwater world comes to life as you experience 10,000 specimens of fish, birds and reptiles in their natural habitats, including sharks, jellies and frogs!” The aquarium features five unique areas – the penguin exhibit, the 400,000-gallon Gulf of Mexico exhibit, the Caribbean Reef tunnel, the Mississippi Delta Gallery with rare white gators and the Amazon Rainforest. There, you can also meet the playful Sea Otters Buck and Emma.

Zoos can grab a powerful hold on your imagination and stay in your memory for a lot of road miles. They can also be a place to not only relax and enjoy yourself, but also to learn about the natural world around us – including parts of it in danger of extinction – and become an ambassador for creatures you fall in love with on your day at the zoo.

Follow the Links
American Zoo and Aquarium Association
Search for zoos by state or by the first letter of the name, and read up about the many wildlife conservation projects going on now in North America.

Eight Great American Zoos
Check out CNN’s top-rated zoos and a 360-degree virtual tour of Zoo Atlanta.