By Alan Burkhart
I occasionally run into someone who believes that cross-country trucking must be absolutely the easiest way in the world to make a paycheck. If you're reading this and you share that opinion, please do enroll at the nearest driving school and get back to me in about a year. I'm betting your feelings will have changed significantly by then.
Mind you, I like what I do. I've been doing it almost thirty years and still enjoy the feel of being in control of seventy feet of steel with 500 horses (and 1700 ft-lbs of torque) under the hood. And while things usually rock along reasonably free of major problems, every now and again we all have one of "those" loads. A load where absolutely everything that can screw up, does screw up; often dramatically. Allow me to share with you the events of the last few days (daze?).
On Thursday of last week, I picked up a load of rolled paper in West Linn, Oregon (near Portland) bound for Dallas, TX. I like hauling the giant rolls of paper. They're generally 4 to 7 feet tall and about 6 feet in diameter. They're loaded standing upright and are stable inside the trailer when properly loaded and secured. And the load itself was about the only thing that went right from that point forward.
It was late in the day by the time I was loaded, so I drove out to La Grand, OR (on I-84) and parked at the Flying J Travel Plaza. After a hot shower, I visited the restaurant and filled my belly with some seriously comfortable comfort food. I took my evening walk whilst jabbering on the cell phone with my elder brother, then climbed in the truck with every intention of closing the curtains and hitting the mattress.
As soon as I switched on the air conditioner, I heard the unmistakable shriek of a loose belt on the engine. I opened the hood and discovered that the double-width belt that spins the alternator and the a/c was loose. The reason: The bolt that secures the alternator to the adjustment arm was missing. Neither I nor the truck stop had a bolt that would fit, and in any event I had also managed to leave my tool box at home.
I drove across the street to a Freightliner dealership and the nice folks there "installed" a bolt for me and tightened the belt. Took about 10 minutes; and cost ninety-three dollars. Feeling slightly screwed but glad to have the problem solved, I returned to the truck stop and called it a day.
I arose the following morning with the goal of reaching Albuquerque, NM by evening time. My route took me down US Hwy 6 in Utah, which involves climbing over a fairly steep and winding grade known as "Soldier Summit." The climb ranges anywhere from 5 to 7 percent.
About two-thirds of the way up, I almost jumped out of my seat when a loud "bang and hiss" sounded from under the hood. The immediate loss of horsepower left no doubt as to what had happened. A component of the engine's "air to air" system (pdf) had blown loose. This instantly robs the truck of about 90% of its horsepower. I managed to crawl to the top of Soldier Summit and found a wide spot off the road. A quick inspection revealed that I'd lost the clamp that secures one of the short hoses to the engine's turbocharger. The hose was there (still fastened at the other end), but the clamp was long gone.
In my box of various spare parts and related junk (which all truckers carry in the truck's side compartment), I had a hose, but no clamp, which led to much cursing and kicking of small defenseless stones and roadside litter. Feeling slightly more severely screwed than before, I got on the CB radio to see if anyone had an extra clamp. After a few minutes, a tanker driver responded that yes, he had a clamp and would stop when he reached the summit. Five minutes after he stopped, the new clamp was installed and we pulled out of the parking area and started the long descent down the mountain.
Later that afternoon, I stopped at a small truck stop in Monticello, UT with the intent of grabbing a bite to go. As I eased through the parking lot, I again heard the sound of a loose engine belt. At this point I was starting to wonder if perhaps some higher power was seeking to prevent me from reaching Dallas.
I opened the hood and discovered that the ear on the alternator through which the aforementioned $93 bolt had been inserted had broken off the alternator. It was dangling there off the end of the adjustment arm, taunting me for my run of bad luck. After spending a few minutes doing yet more cursing and kicking of stones, I decided that perhaps I should address the problem.
The nearest Detroit Diesel dealer was sixty miles away in Cortez, CO. To make matters worse the place was closed for the day so I'd have to pay an extra fee for someone to come in and repair the truck. My boss and I spoke by phone (I always ask first when spending other people's money), and decided to engage in a bit of Southern Ingenuity.
Using a cargo strap, I secured the alternator to the truck's frame. By the time I’d figured out how to get it all wound up and tied down it resembled some sort of nightmare necktie from Hell. This didn't tighten the belt enough to use the air conditioner, but it did at least keep the alternator spinning. Our little band-aid job held together while I drove the remaining 300 or so miles down to Albuquerque. A new alternator cost $419 installed. Some of you truckers are doubtlessly wondering why I didn’t just wedge a chunk of wood between the a/c compressor and the alternator to keep the belt tight. If I could have found one that fit, I would have. It was that kind of day.
Did I mention that during all this time I had also been keeping an eye on a tiny leak on the back of the water pump? Didn't think so. Not a big leak, by any means, but it was putting a few drops on the ground. I left Albuquerque and traveled as far as Moriarty, NM, then called it a day.
The following morning I hit the ground running and made it to Wichita Falls, TX. The weather had turned foul, and on the north end of town I drove into a raging thunderstorm on US Hwy 287. It was one of those classic North Texas thunder-bangers that just lights up the sky with constant lightning and the thunder is so loud you can feel it down in your bones. The wind was brutal, and visibility was reduced to maybe a tenth of a mile. I had two cars on my left and a narrow shoulder and a guardrail on the right. No wiggle room whatsoever. And that moment was when someone's hound dog ran out into the road. The storm had evidently spooked the poor guy, as he was running in circles and obviously frightened. Couldn't move over. Couldn't stop. Dead dog.
Most of the mutt spun out from under the left side of the truck, but a significant portion of the dog remained under the hood. I pulled into a small truck stop in Wichita Falls, stepped out into the lessening but still-pouring rain and pulled open the hood. Blood, hair, teeth and doggy doo all over the under carriage and even splashed up onto the engine. Hm... Perhaps that was an indelicate description. Oh well, too late now.
I drove across the lot, found a water hose and began washing the gore off the frame and engine. Yep, there I was, standing in the rain, soaking wet, hosing down an eighteen-wheeler. Hopefully no one in possession of a digital camera saw me. I'd hate for that image to make it to the internet. Given the solemn nature of the occasion (I really love dogs), I refrained from kicking stones and cursing.
I left out early the next morning and rolled into Big D without incident. But my leaky water pump was still leaking, and my boss and I decided to bring it in to our terminal in Mississippi for repair. Those of you familiar with the Detroit Diesel 60 Series engine will know about the plate on the back of the water pump. It's secured by a snap-ring, and beneath the plate is a large o-ring. That's where she was leaking.
I picked up a load in Dallas bound for Vicksburg, MS and delivered it the next morning (by now it‘s Wednesday, May 23). I arrived at our shop, and we spent the afternoon on other items - changing the oil, fixing a tire, and a few other minor issues that needed attention. Our plan was to address the water pump the following morning. My dispatcher had already booked a multi-drop load for me, the first drop being in St Louis, MO. I'd need to leave Mississippi by early afternoon to reach St Louis on time.
The next morning I drove to the local Detroit Diesel shop (we just call it "Jerry's") and good old Jerry just about killed himself replacing the o-ring and plate. I never knew one damn snap-ring could be this much trouble. It ate up the whole day, and when I fired up the truck to test it for leaks, it poured. A bit of banging and hammering slowed the leak but didn't stop it.
By now it's 4:45 PM. St Louis is 530 miles away and I've been up since 6:00 AM. We're coming up on the Memorial Day weekend. None of our customers will be open after Friday. My second drop after St Louis is Billings, MT which is 1300 miles from St Louis. I am really needing to be in St Louis on Friday so I can be in Billings on the following Tuesday after the holiday.
Jerry was dead-tired and it was closing time. I returned to our shop, and our mechanic, Mike, and I began the pain-in-the-ass process of changing the water pump... without waiting for the hot engine to cool. We were already tired and irritable, and nothing was working as it should. Every bolt rusted solid, every hose almost welded to its fitting, it seemed that the truck itself was bound and determined to prevent us from succeeding. Can't imagine why. I feed and wash her regularly and always tell her what a pretty truck she is. The old bitch just doesn't appreciate me anymore.
Finally, I rolled out of the shop at just after 11:00 PM. I was filthy, hungry and bone-tired. I do however, know my limits and knew I still had a few hours left in this battered old body. Long story made short, I rolled as far as Batesville, MS (near Memphis, TN) and slept all of three hours, then called the customer as soon as I woke and talked them into taking the drop a bit outside of their normal receiving hours. I made it to St Louis just in time.
As I said earlier, my next stop is in Billings, MT on Tuesday. Lots of time, provided nothing else goes haywire. Now I'm kicked back in the sleeper with another belly-full from a Flying J buffet (in Pontoon Beach, IL - just across the river from St Louis). And the only place I'm going tonight is to bed.
See you on the road.