I’ve been driving for a living for twenty years give or take, with over two million all-weather miles in a tractor-trailer. I run regional, meaning I stick to one geographic area—The Pacific Northwest—and while I’ve rolled down every road from Port Angeles to Port Orford, much of my experience lies along the 300-mile US 97-corridor which bisects Oregon’s sere, sun-savaged center. It’s a highway of extremes, bordered to the west by the granite backbone and soaring snowy peaks of the Cascade Mountains, while to the east the rounded shoulders of the old and smoky Ochoco’s slump into the shimmering distances of the High Desert. From the rolling wheat farms of the Oregon-Washington border to the open range and rattlesnake wastes of Klamath County, 97 passes through a dramatic swath of land known as much for it’s meth-bitten trailer houses as it’s multimillion-dollar ranches. Weather extremes range from -30 below to 120 degrees fahrenheit. Cattle trucks with shit-stained sides mingle with gear-laden Subaru’s. Antelope and Coyotes browse and skulk among the endless sagebrush and wind-whittled rock. Hawks wait patiently atop bullet-riddled road signs.
I drive US 97 thrice weekly and I can damn near run it blindfolded. And June 22, 2013 is no exception, a run that begins like any other. I hit the yard on the outskirts of Portland at 11:30 p.m., load my lunch-pail and backpack into Truck 30—a 2003 Freightliner Century—and give her a precursory check: fluids full, brakes adjusted, belts tight, lights lit and all 18 tires inflated. I hit the starter button and bring her 14-Liter Detroit Diesel into roaring life, then head inside the warehouse to inspect the cargo, take a look at my Bills of Lading, update my logbook and plan my route. Tonight I’m hauling roughly 39,000lbs of fresh fruits and vegetables in my 48’ trailer. I have 11 hours to drive 437 miles and three hours for breaks, fuel stops, and the unloading of my nine separate deliveries. In other words, 14 hours of legal-time to finish the job and return to Portland, and the clock started ticking when I arrived.
I thank the shipping crew for loading my trailer, grab my bills, head out the door, belt myself in the cab and point ‘ol “Dirty 30″ east out of Portland for the long climb over the Cascade Mountains. The trucker in me briefly considers my recorded book selection but the writer in me wins out and I decide to forgo McCarthy’s “The Road” for a while longer, preferring as I do on so many nights to let my thoughts spool out along the ribbon of winding road. I am totally undisturbed and invariably wind up musing on novel plots, short-stories, character sketches and single-lines of text. My phone fills with detailed and disjointed voice-notes as I leave the urban world and disappear into the wet western fir-flanks of Mt. Hood.
At the foot of the Laurel Hill, I slip the 13-speed shifter out of overdrive, drop two more gears and lay into the fuel, never touching the clutch, floating by feel between gears and making that 515 horsepower Detroit Diesel howl like a drunken prom date. A glance at the boost-pressure gauge tells me what I already know: Turbo’s hitting 35 psi, and I’m in 10th gear, holding 55 mph. Translation: I weigh just under 80,000 lbs., the heaviest legal load for my 18-wheeler.
I’m down to 8th gear and 35 mph by the time Thirty roars up through Government Camp and over Wapinitia Pass, and my windshield is filled by the sharp, looming silhouette of Mt. Hood against a ceiling of countless sizzling stars. I hit the auxiliary fan to stop from overheating, keep right at the Bear Springs Cutoff, and slip her back up into overdrive for the roller-coaster ride off the back of the mountain. There is rarely anybody on these outland roads in the small hours, and in the enormous silence of the high, dry Ponderosa forest, my jake-brakes must be heard by every living thing for 50 square miles.
An hour later, I blast out onto the treeless desolation of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Dawn hints along the horizon, cool and blue behind the Mutton Mountains. I keep my eyes peeled for a Tribal Police speed-trap as I drop down into the town of Warm Springs, a collection of sun-rotted trailers and government-issue shacks surrounding the requisite casino and discount smoke-shop. I cross the Deschutes River and breathe a sigh of relief as I leave the rez’, and soon I’m cruising into the neon-smear of Madras, where I see the first traffic in the last 90 miles.
This is as easy and peaceful as trucking gets: virtually empty roads, a smooth-running truck, mostly stunning scenery, great weather and no cops. By now I’m not thinking about much more than where I’ll buy my morning coffee—the espresso-stand in Terrebonne or the Chevron in Redmond? The girls at the stand are smart, sassy and easy on the eyes—not to mention they serve better coffee—but I can get newspaper at Chevron and I like reading on my break. I mull my options and gaze ahead. The highway widens into four lanes as I round the blind curve just before The Crooked River Gorge.
And that’s when I see the pickup truck.
At first, I don’t actually see anything—just an anomaly in the half-light that pulls me from my coffee conundrum. But it’s an anomaly in my lane—with no headlights—moving straight toward me at an alarming rate of speed.
I stab the brakes a few times, throw a hard downshift and glance toward the shoulder, adrenaline pumping as everything enters that strange slow-motion that accompanies moments of horror.
Beyond the shoulder there’s nothing but a steep embankment covered in large lava rocks and stunted junipers. To my left there’s an open lane with nobody in it. Ahead of me is the grill of a lifted Ford pickup growing ever-larger and coming head-on.
It all takes half a second to process, though it feels like a lifetime. I wrench the wheel hard left and swing the tractor out of the Ford’s way, the pit of my stomach roiling as 40 tons of steel and fruit tilt toward the asphalt. I rip the wheel back right and manage to correct my trailer before she rolls, catching a glimpse of the Ford in my passenger mirror as it streaks under my trailer’s passenger side wheels in an explosion of breaking glass, fluids, rubber, steam and metal.
I scream at the top of lungs as I realize the impact has shoved my trailer onto two wheels and now she’s starting to roll over on her driver’s side. Instantly, I throw the shifter down a few gears and mash the fuel to the floor, tires screeching with a horrifically unnatural sound as I take the tractor left in a Hail-Mary attempt to keep her standing. There’s a moment of near perfect stasis: motor shrieking, tires smoking, trailer balanced at the tipping point… And then the load shifts again and somehow, Dirty Thirty settles back down on what’s left of her 18 wheels.
I wrestle her to the shoulder and slide to a stop, gravel spraying every which way. I set the brakes and fly from the cab in a dead run down US 97 with hands fumbling at my cell-phone, 911, 911, 911…
From the mangled remains of the pickup, there is screaming.
I began driving truck at 13 years of age, in Northwest Oregon’s semi-rural Tualatin Valley. A trailer-park kid from a single-parent home, I answered an employment ad: Haybucks wanted. Unable to keep up with the strapping farm-kids despite my dogged efforts at stacking 60-pound bales of fresh fescue, the farmer put me in the driver’s seat of the derelict 1966 International Harvester flatbed we were loading. A light went off in my head almost immediately, and for better or worse, I knew I’d found my calling. Despite the antiquated nature of the truck, the twin-shifters (a four-speed bolted to a five), and the exceedingly narrow power-band of the vintage diesel, I loved that old Cornbinder like a first girlfriend.
Like all semi’s to this day, she had straight-cut gears in her transmissions—no synchromesh—so she had to be shifted at exactly the moment when engine and transmission rpm coincided. I learned this by feel, and by the end of my first day, I had no use for double-clutching—I just floated her through the gears like I’d been at it all my life.
Several summers went by, and then I worked on the hay farm no more. Due to the fledgling Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986—which enacted the requirement for a CDL—local law-enforcement cracked down on underage kids driving 40-ton hay trucks and by 1988, one needed a Farm Endorsement to drive. Unfortunately, I turned 16 in October 1989, bought a ’70 Buick LeSabre, and promptly lost my license for Excessive Speeding and Reckless Driving. Needless to say, a Farm Endorsement was out of the question.
And so I sold the Buick, bought a ’76 VW Bug and started at the bottom of the ladder, becoming a pizza delivery driver for a restaurant that never checked my credentials. As the nineties wore on, I got my license back and worked my way up to bigger vehicles and longer runs: Pizza led to magazines, followed by newsprint, hot-tubs, auto-parts, RV fixtures, and roofing materials. The Bug became a one-ton box van, which became a 26,000-lb Isuzu, followed by a ’74 Western Star, a ‘77 Freightliner with a 40’ flatbed, ’79 Mack Concrete Mixer, ’88 Kenworth with B-train doubles, a ’95 Navistar with three 27′ box trailers and 32 wheels. The Portland area became Portland to Yakima, Spokane, Medford, Seattle. My regular Class-C license became a Class-A CDL with air-brake, triple-trailer, tanker, and hazardous cargo endorsements.
Flash-forward to June 22, 2013 and I’m 39 years old and road-ready as they come. I’ve hauled everything from rebuilt engines to logs, paper, gravel, concrete, liquor, water, milk, shoes, and once, 30,000lbs of rotting beef. I’ve run legal, illegal, fast, slow, overweight, empty and everything in between. Since 2005, I’ve hauled produce for the same outfit, three runs a week while graduating from Portland State University, starting a family, buying a home, establishing a fledgling freelance career, and sleeping a whole lot less than I’d like.
I’ve had a few tickets: overweight, over-hours, improper lane-change and illegal parking, but I’ve never had an accident that was my fault. And even then, never one where anyone got hurt.
You can bet I’m not thinking about any of that as I sprint toward the remains of that Ford pickup.
I am fucking terrified.
The 911 operator answers immediately and I explain that we need ambulances, police and fire at mile-marker 112. I hang up as I reach the wreck and I am shocked to see the driver’s side door open, and a tall, skinny guy in his early twenties stumbles from the truck dressed in jeans and a dirty t-shirt. He’s unhurt, or at least not bleeding. “Holy shit! Are you alright?” I ask.
“Yeah, I uh…” he trails off, scratching his inky black crew cut and staring around as if he just woke up. “I think I blew a tire?” Immediately, I am assailed by the reek of alcohol, and one look at his eyes gives it away: His wide, brown pupils float like burnt biscuits in barbecue sauce. He’s obliterated.
Turns out the screaming is from his passenger, similarly wasted, also miraculously uninjured, and very much in the mood to leave the scene. He slides from the driver’s side door, too, a guy of the same age, slightly stockier and dressed in baggy jeans and a hoodie. Immediately, he is on his cell-phone, backing nervously toward the junipers, saying, “We just got in a wreck. You gotta come get us right now…”
Whatever is left of my cool is gone, and I draw myself up to my full 6’ 1” and stalk straight up to him with my finger in his face. “You’re not going anywhere!” I roar, pointing to the ditch beside the still-steaming remains of the pickup. “You take another step into those trees and I will break your fucking neck and drag you back onto that highway!” I spin around and point to the driver. “You too, motherfucker! You’re gonna sit down right here. This is my livelihood you’re fucking with!”
They look at each other uneasily and do as they’re told. Within minutes, Oregon State Troopers arrive, followed by fire and rescue, local police, and county sheriffs who immediately fall into their well-rehearsed roles. Road-flares are lit and the highway is closed. Questions are asked, statements given. Examinations occur. Sobriety tests are failed. Cameras flash. Skid-marks are measured. The sun comes up.
Within 10 minutes, the driver is arrested on suspicion of DUI, Reckless Driving, and Reckless Endangerment. His passenger is escorted from the scene for public intoxication. I am commended for saving their lives by not rolling the semi.
Otherwise, it’s business as usual. “At least there’s no blood,” I hear one firefighter comment, as he works to clear oil, glass and the Ford’s entire front axle-assembly from the middle of the highway. The arresting officer is equally tired of the scene. “I threw that little maggot in jail,” he said matter-of-factly, upon returning to give me my copy of his arrest report, highlighting the driver’s .14 blood-alcohol content.
And as quickly as it began, it’s over. The tow-truck pulls away with the crumpled Ford, and I am alone in the desert sunshine with my crippled trailer, axles too bent to move. Six hours later, another truck arrives from Portland and we begin the process of manually sorting and unloading 20 tons of what is now the world’s largest tossed salad.
I am not angry with the kid. I’m glad he’s alive. I hope he’s scared straight. But I’ve heard the stories and his address is right there on the accident report: Warm Springs. And his lean, lanky, frame, fine-boned face and ink-black hair spell it out: another example of America’s embarrassingly inhumane treatment of her native residents.
Late that night, I arrive home, aching from the whiplash and the unloading, and I sit down to do some drinking of my own. I crack a tall can of Ranier, fire up my laptop and the writer in me begins researching the Warm Springs Reservation. I am as guilty as any other Oregonian of simply flying through its boundaries without so much as a thought. Maybe I am more so; as I cross the rez’ thrice weekly and scarcely register its existence.
What I find online is staggering: In accordance with the Treaty of 1855, historically-opposed bands of Wasco and Paiute people gave up 10 million acres of land they occupied for 10,000 years in return for roughly 700,000 acres of Oregon’s inhospitable interior, in return for basic healthcare, food, housing and education.
Flash-forward to 2013 and unemployment tops 68%. Half the population lives below the poverty line. One-third of adults never finish high school. Substance abuse, violent crime and sex abuse run rampant. Suicide rates are over twice the national average. The average life expectancy for a male is 47.
I do a background search of the driver. Like many Native Americans, his name is unique and reflects his heritage. I learn that his father died at 37, when he was 13. I learn of his recent conviction for furnishing alcohol to minors and a promising high-school basketball career cut short by alcohol violations. Among his extended family, I learn of homes lost to wildfire, prison sentences, child abuse, highway deaths, and broken homes—in short, a litany of desperate lives. Mainly, I learn he is not a maggot.
I think of own life at 13. The broken home, the messy divorce, visits from police, tarps on our trailer-roof, the struggles of my single-mom, my rage at those who blamed me for my conditions. And I think then of the effects, the endless drunken revelry of my early twenties, the close-calls, the drunken drives through the Tualatin Mountains.
I shut down my computer, pour my beer out in the kitchen sink, and watch the cool liquid circle the drain. The writer in me looks for some sort of understanding in all this while the trucker in me is all-too aware of the arbitrary nature of violence on the highway.
The last of the beer gurgles away to nowhere. One man is in jail tonight, and another stands in front of his kitchen sink. And neither is any closer to knowing why.