'Estimated opening time is unknown': Winter from hell on I-80 in Wyoming

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Updated Mar 21, 2023

Packing to leave on Sunday is the worst. You'd think I'd be used to it by now after 4 million miles, but I'm not. In fact, for some reason, it's getting harder.

While the folks around us readied themselves for Sunday mass, I commenced to disgorge the dining room table of an unruly mound of clean laundry, rolling up bib overalls and stuffing them  into my red and black Stoops Freightliner duffle bag, a door prize from a 2017 company safety picnic held well before the pandemic sent such events the way of the dinosaur. Then there was the hanging of the shirts, the stowing of socks and undies into their respective compartments. And as I packed, my other half, Jumper, was transfixed upon her phone, watching the weather out West.

"Have you seen the weather in Wyoming, dear?" she said. 

"Nope, and I'm not looking at it."

"Oh - Kay." 

One of those OKs that bore the imprimatur, let's say, of a long-suffering trucker's wife. Elongated O, followed by a singsongy K. A portent of imminent doom, followed by a kind of resignation.

"Look, I drive the mile that's in front of me, and if they shut me down they shut me down," I said. "That's how I do it. I don't look at the weather. I never look at the weather. I've got food, water and a blanket. I've got everything I need. What am I gonna do, call off the load?" 

"Oh - Kay." 

Then came the loading of food, shaving kit, hung shirts, guitar and that red and black Stoops Freightliner duffle bag into the old F150, until the last darkening of the door and the hug goodbye. But this time, Jumper broke down sobbing. She's not really much of a cryer, so just what was that all about? Too late. Gotta go. Been 41 years with that woman, and I really still don't know how to read her most of the time. Think I'm afraid of a little snow?

Nothing clears the head like a reefer load to Salt Lake City. You go to a small town in Ohio, drop, hook, and there's two and a half days of nothing but pure driving. When it comes to trucking, at least where I work, Salt Lake -- man. It's the best of the best. 

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If the load shakes loose late, or if you simply sandbag it out of the house, all you gotta do is get yourself to the Iowa 80 Truck Stop, declare victory, go to bed ,and let the white noise of I-80 sing you to sleep. On better days, you can make Brooklyn, maybe even Stuart before your clock shuts you down. Then there's nothing you have to do but get up the next morning, go about your morning rituals, pretrip your truck and drive. It's old man's freight. Easy peasy.

On the second day, you declare victory at Ogallala or points West, and have yet another nice relaxing sleep, get up the next morning, go about your pretrip and morning ritual and drive. On the third day, you deliver.

Yes, it's simply the best run they've got. 

Except for weeks like this one, when you're laid up in a fetal position in Laramie with I-80 shut down, calling the 511 line over and over again for the automated male voice to tell you, over and over, "The estimated opening time is unknown."

So you walk into the Petro. There's nothing left to do now but order the hamburger steak and put yourself in a food coma. 

The ecosystem of a truck stop changes when the road shuts down. People were lingering, having long conversations. I hadn't seen so many customers in there since before the pandemic. I got my belly full and then sauntererd in the TV room to see if I could catch a little conversation before nap time . 

A disheveled man of about thirty was holding forth, telling his troubles to whoever would listen.

"I've been shut down five times this winter. Last week for four days," he said. It was Tuesday afternoon. There was something wrong with his voice and demeanor, as if all these shutdowns were on the verge of shutting him down. He spoke like a man who couldn't quit shivering. 

"I been here. This time. Since. Sunday." 

He was probably some mega-fleet rookie psyched out by a hand-holding dispatcher, I thought. So you tell yourself what you tell yourself when you've got a job to do, and people around you are melting down. I had to get out of that room. The food coma began making itself known, just as a desperation was coming over me. I walked outside. The wind was so stiff you could hardly breathe. I thought of my wife asking if I'd looked at the weather. Maybe I should have given it a look-see, at least in Ogallala.

I called her and told her as much, then went to sleep.

I came out of the food coma around dusk. The wind was still howling. The automated male voice broke the bad news.

The estimated opening time is unknown.

8 p.m., same.

[Related: Wyoming I-80: Road crews face nightmare situation]

Around nine, I slammed a quart of whole milk and some Oreos and induced my second coma.

I was slept out by one, and called one more time.

We were open! 

This was different than previous road-closure situations I'd been in over years past. In pre-ELD days, you could tell the road was open by a mass exodus of trucks. It was like people leaving a concert. Now, just two or three were trickling out.  

Somehow, I relished that change. Surprisingly few rigs were on the road now, and almost all of them were driving like real pros.

[Related: Driver caught using tablet at highway speeds on I-80]

The hardest thing in recent months has been the sheer volume of trucks going insanely fast in icy conditions. I've seen it. You're barely holding it together at 35 or 40 mph, and they scorch past you doing 60, maybe 70 in the lane that hasn't even been cleared of snow. And they all look so young to me -- from California, from Illinois, from wherever they're from. Maybe it's my own perception bias. You just know they're going to wreck. Sometimes they do. Many times you see those same trucks jackknifed in the median.

At least for now, those guys weren't on this road, as if a higher force was out there somewhere saying, No worries, hand. I got this.

It's been a winter from hell, here. The Wyoming Business Report noted fatalities went from 6 in 2022 to 20 in 2023, as of February 17, a spike north of 300%.

After some time, conditions cleared, and we were at road speed, westbound and heading for Elk Mountain.

Maybe next time I'll catch the weather ahead of time and go the Southern route through Denver.

A podcast version of "Long Haul Paul" Marhoefer's story was featured March 17, 2023, in this edition of the Overdrive Radio podcast: 

[Related: Wyoming I-80 saga: State DOT offers help for operators]