Say what you will, but there's nothing like a once-in-a-generation blizzard to put you right back on the cutting edge. Just about the time your life seems to have lost its meaning and purpose, you wake up one morning, it's 14 below, and you've got to be in Salt Lake City by 3:30 a.m. tomorrow. Throw in some 50 mph wind gusts, a few whiteouts west of Ogallala, a veritable boneyard of jack-knifed trucks in the median and -- voila! -- It's 1978 all over again. Your life has acquired new mission: Don't die today.
Yes, I will cop to the old trucker's tendency to revel in one's tribulations. But seriously -- man, the Christmas week was a doozy.
I make my living today as a part time trucker, a singer-songwriter and a freelance writer... Lately, though, can I just level with you? I've kind of hit a slump on the creative side. Call it burnout, call it just being "dumbed down and numbed by time and age," as the Avett Brothers put it; but I've honestly been wondering whether there's really anything left in me that's fresh and interesting. If not, why not just reboot as a full-time company driver? I have coworkers right here where I'm employed who are earning north of six figures.
And yet here I am, galavanting about, all semi-retired, playing shows and writing 800-1,200-word essays. There's a voice in my head that sounds a lot like Dave Ramsey screaming "Dude! You've got well over a million miles without a moving violation or a chargeable accident involving a police call-out! Run for the money while there's still time!"
These were some of the things I was contemplating on Christmas Eve while heading back home after weathering the aforementioned blizzard. I had picked up my return load in greater Salt Lake and was making a beeline for Brooklyn.
Iowa, that is. Good coffee, $2 sandwiches, and no ATM fees.
With any luck, if I made it to the Brooklyn Kwik Star for the night and if the roads held up, by my best-laid plans I'd be home for Christmas dinner the next day.
But as the late sportscaster Dandy Don Meredith was fond of saying, "Were ifs and buts only candies and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas."
Somewhere between Big Springs and North Platte, a runaway set of duals from a truck or trailer came rolling westbound in my eastbound lane at a high rate of speed like some suicidal whitetail buck -- straight at me. There was nothing I could do.
Really, there is no adequate onomatopoeia to describe the sickening sound of a set of 60 mph runaway duals colliding head-on with a tractor-trailer at road speed. You've got the initial sound of fiberglass crunching, followed a nanosecond later by a left steer tire and an axle getting nuked.
It was more like a kkkeekabooom!, maybe.
But I wasn't really thinking about onomatopoeias with all of my 77,000 pounds now bearing down on that naked rim, as it pulled me into the median, into oncoming westbound traffic. As my cursing melted into one screaming prayer, down the embankment of the westbound shoulder I flew, straight for a small lake. Hang on for dear life, stand on the brakes.
My main thought, for the second time in about as many days, was "don't die today." It was a long five seconds.
At this point, I raise my glass to whoever stretched that fence along I-80 in western Nebraska. Horse-high and hog-tight never saw a more perfect example than that section of woven wire at mile marker 159. It was that fence that kept me from becoming an involuntary member of the polar bear club.
I came to rest just a few feet from the water, short of breath and shaken up, but otherwise unscathed. Somewhere, through the corridors of time, a 1987 orientation at Builders Transport began kicking in:
"What to do in case of an accident: Number one; assist the injured."
I climbed out of the remains of truck 812, up the embankment, and, to my eternal relief, found that no one else had wrecked, including whatever truck had lost this particular set of duals. A man and two women were standing on the shoulder, speaking to one another. I recognized their vehicles as the ones I'd nearly plowed into when I crossed the westbound lanes. One was an tractor-trailer, a flatbed, the other a gray sedan.
"Number two: Call the authorities."
The man on the shoulder, the flatbedder, was on his phone. Now he was walking toward me. "Are you OK?"
"Yeah, I think so."
He spoke into his phone: "The driver said he's OK," Calling 911 was covered.
I returned to the truck to call work and gather the requisite paperwork. The Nebraska Highway Patrol by then had rolled in. With my paperwork gathered, I walked back up the embankment to the officer. "Hi, I'm Phil," he said.
Somehow, in that moment, there was no more perfect thing I could have heard. It felt like I was at a friendly neighborhood barbecue. "Hi, I'm Paul," I said, and shook his hand.
A young lady hugged me and told me she was so glad I was OK. Then Phil returned to taking their statements. These people had stood in the cold on the shoulder of I-80 for a good 25 minutes now to bear witness to what they saw, and to tell the officer it wasn't my fault.
Somewhere west of Red Cloud, the ghost of Willa Cather must have been smiling. I still believed, at least in the abstract, that strangers this good and decent existed somewhere. It had been a while since I'd met any.
It takes a long time to extract a loaded tractor-trailer that is nosed in from an embankment. "Sit in my car if you'd like," Phil offered. So I did.
Before it was over, there were six vehicles on the scene. Phil would return to the car every now and then to warm up and process my paperwork.
A couple hours later, he gave me a ride to North Platte, where there was lodging. "Look," he said, "here's my card with my personal cell. If you get lonely tomorrow, call me. Come have Christmas dinner with me and my family."
It was nearly dusk by then. All the restaurants near to me were closed for Christmas Eve. I settled on a bag of microwave popcorn, some Kraft mac and cheese and beverages purchased from the front desk at the Comfort Inn.
Alone in my room, thinking how bad it could have been, I was overtaken by an inexplicable joy. Cradled in the kindness that is Western Nebraska, somehow, I didn't die today.