I might have enjoyed making my living as a long-haul big-rig truck driver instead of as a journalist — except for the long haul, big-rig 18-wheel tractor-trailer.
I relearned that last week during a drive to and from South Dakota, 16 hours out and 18 hours back.
Younger daughter Natalie moved there recently with her husband and two children, courtesy of the Army. Matt Spencer’s new assignment is as a college ROTC instructor, so there they were and there I went, due COVID precautions and all, for a two-day visit that chewed through a six-day trip.
The visit was delightful, made especially so by the droll humor of grandson Cody, age 8, and the incessant effervescence of granddaughter Emily, age 4.
The trip was actually relaxing, if one omits getting anywhere close to Chicago’s excuses for highways.
I enjoy driving, partly because I came to it later than most of my friends. When I turned 16, we didn’t have a car. Neither did about half of the families in our neighborhood. We bummed rides. We walked. We took buses or, if it was a real “occasion,” called for a taxicab. Me? I rode my trusty Western Flyer bike, with fat tires, Bendix pedal brakes and a push-button battery operated horn in between the two top frame tubes.
When I could afford my 1955 Plymouth in 1963, I drove everywhere I could drive.
I felt free behind the wheel of a car.
Today, I still do.
To my surprise (but nobody else’s), my wife did not object to a week at home by herself. I had thought she would miss my keen witticisms, insightful banter, plentiful wise observations and cogent suggestions as to how she should cook, make the bed and feed the dogs, cats and chickens.
Oddly, she did not. So I went.
I found a few surprises. One was my reaction to the 80 mph speed limit in South Dakota. I had chafed under Pennsylvania’s archaic 65 mph speed limit on interstate highways. When it changed to 70 mph about five years ago, I pushed my cruising speed up to 76 mph, trusting in the rumored “six-mph cushion” before state police would nab speeding drivers.
When I encountered that 80 mph speed limit in The Mount Rushmore State, I stayed at 76 mph. The cars of residents zipped past me during the daytime. When I drove in darkness along Interstate 29, I noticed that even the residents were driving at about 75 mph That shows the innate good sense of the 80 percent of drivers who plan to arrive alive at our destinations.
I saw something that could be useful along our Clarion-Brookville-DuBois-Clearfield stretch of Interstate 80.
Along Interstate 90, South Dakota has “Road Closed” gates and flashing lights already installed in anticipation of winter blizzards.
Hereabouts, it is usually vehicle crashes that close I-80, sometimes in summer as well as winter. The closings happen monthly or more often in winter. Our Department of Transportation might consider installing the hardware to simplify closing the roadways and easing the traffic cop workload for our overburdened emergency responders.
As vehicles approach toll plazas, even those where complete stops are not required, they are reminded to “check brakes.” Reflexively, I tapped the brake pedal. I slowed down, which was the ulterior motive behind those signs in the first place. Few of us zoomed through the EZPass gantries. Another good idea, I think.
There was a bad idea: Trying to get through Chicago via I-90, then crawl up the western side of Lake Michigan on I-90 offshoots before cruising westward through Wisconsin and Minnesota (which, in October, as grain is harvested and aromatic fertilizer is applied, could be called “Moo-nure-sota”).
For hour after hour, I drove in solitary joy, singing off-key, listening to Sirius radio’s sports, music and talk channels. I might have enjoyed being a long-haul truck driver — except for actually driving those hinged monstrosities. I have driven some U-Haul box trucks without too much trouble. But I cannot back up my ATV with a yard cart attached without a tipover of the cart or, worse, an unplanned rip-it-up trip through my wife’s flowers or shrubs.
I might manage straight-ahead big rig driving despite the forward gears (10 to 18). I got good enough at “three on a tree” and other early versions of standard transmissions.
But when I gave my son Greg a ride in a yard cart to ease his dependence on a walker, I dumped him sideways with a too-sharp turn. Our “putz speed” of perhaps 3 mph limited the damage to a bruised ego (mine) and a dirty coat sleeve (his).
I like to drive — cars, vans, sport-utility vehicles, and pickup trucks.
But though I daydream about being a “Knight of the Road,” reality dictates that I tip my cap to those who do so for a living, and content myself with making computer keyboards go “clickety-click.”
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