On Frozen Ground

THE ARCTIC PLUNGE OF 2021

Fowler’s Big Rig Chronicles

Steve Fowler’s Freightliner at a Rest Area in Missouri FEB 2021

(image modified with an art filter)

Today is Sunday, February 26, 2021, and I just finished driving through frigid conditions across the United States.

On February 10th I hooked onto a trailer in El Paso, TX containing a load of snow blowers from Mexico, destined for Iowa. That night and the following two days, I was stalled in miles-long delays on I-20 between Pecos, Texas and Abilene, Texas; in conditions that included ice, fog, and snow. Also in Texas on that same day, a FedEx truck jumped atop multiple vehicles in a 133 vehicle pileup on I-35; leaving six dead. More than a dozen 18 wheelers were involved. 

On February 13th I finally arrived in Oklahoma City and gave my load to another truck driver for the Iowa delivery, then picked up a load of Cottonelle toilet paper needed in Chicago. While in OKC I looked at the weather forecast and discovered an approaching snowstorm. Without delay, I decided to depart the area on I-44 and head to Missouri to avoid the storm. A deadly/fiery pileup occurred less than 9 hours later exactly where I’d just driven.

Blue dots reflect more than 3,000 low-temp records tied or broken in February.

The purple reflects areas of the U.S. impacted by the historic cold snap of 2021.

Rushing to Missouri did little to help. It began snowing heavily, so I pulled into a truck stop in Joplin to wait out the storm. The lot was very wet with heavy snow. Waiting out the storm took 41 hours parked in the same spot. Yikes! How many backsides in Chicago were desperately waiting for my load of toilet paper?

While sitting there, the wind chill dropped to -25 at one point. I heard about truck drivers running out of food, water, and fuel. Not me. I lived in Alaska for many years and learned the value of preparedness. When I leave Oro Valley, I always carry many weeks of food and water on board. When the weather becomes iffy, I never let my 200-gallon diesel tanks fall below 100 gallons.

When I tried to leave, after waiting out the storm for 41 hours (my truck was idling the entire time), I discovered all 18 tires had frozen into the ice. I couldn’t move. After a lot of work getting free, I discovered the brake system in two wheels were frozen and the wheels wouldn’t turn. That was fun!

A few days later I was back in Texas and was reminded that driving for conditions is both wise and safe. At sundown, the snow had been melting and the wind was blowing. I parked at a rest area and called it a night. At 2 AM I awoke and was going to pull out of the rest area. I checked the parking lot and discovered the melting snow morphed into black ice. Other drivers either didn’t notice or care. Those fellows were jackknifed, in ditches, and one guy discovered that laying his 18 wheeler on its side gets you nowhere fast. All that is reflective of very poor judgment.

My firsthand understanding of what it takes to safely traverse America’s highways, steep mountain roads, and windy weather-beaten pathways in an 80,000 pound tractor-trailer reminds me of the dangers associated with these big rigs. To give some perspective, and 80,000 pound big rig is equivalent in weight to more than twenty-two 2020 Toyota Camrys; contained in a single package on 18 wheels.

Here’s another perspective. When I carry beer loads, I’m driving a tractor, trailer, and hauling enough beer to provide every attendee at an Arizona Wildcats game with 3 beers each (45,000 bottles of beer). That’s heavy!

Weather and weight, combined with speed, can kill. Please, whenever possible,  always keep your distance from 18 wheelers while driving. Even in good weather. Stay far behind or pass beyond tractor trailers. Don’t linger in their vicinity.

Whatever you do, don’t pass a big rig, then merge back right away. If you hit a dog or blow a tire, a tractor trailer’s stopping distance is so long, you might find yourself buried in a flattened mass of crushed rubber and  steel. We cannot stop on a dime. 

Anyway, I’m very glad winter is just about over. It’s time to trade in ice and snow for tornadoes and summer downpours.

A parting thought…

I just looked at the maps in this article reflecting 2021’s winter conditions and cold weather records. Those graphics reinforce my belief that living in sunny Arizona is a real blessing.

I’m uu

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