Meatless in Madras

The mule deer leaps from the sage along the roadside, illuminated in my headlights for an instant before the grill of my speeding semi broadsides her with a muffled whump. Reflexively, I check my driver-side mirror and in the dingy light of the High Desert Dawn I see the carcass burst like a wet, red balloon from beneath my trailer tires. It’s Sunday morning, 6:30 a.m., and aside from my Freightliner, U.S. 97 is devoid of anything but a fleeting case of bad luck for which I’m no more to blame than the deer is.

Common as it is on these outland roads, the doe’s death is just one more pain in my already throbbing head. What my dispatcher termed “a straight shot from Portland to Redmond” became 12 icy hours with stops in Sisters, Prineville, Sunriver, Bend, Redmond and Terrebonne. To further compound matters I have a two-day hangover parked in my skull, the remnants of a festive Friday full of old friends from out of town and a boatload of bourbon and beer around a backyard-bonfire. Like every hangover I’ve ever suffered, my mind goes into low-power mode and riffs off a subconcious-loop of song-lyrics and senseless snatches of conversation from the night before—Does this piece of wood remind you of Tom Jones?—You know he’s Welsh?—It’s not unusual to be chopped by anyone!—Are there many trees left in Wales?—Somebody should ask that vegan-chick we knew who worked for Greenpeace…

I’ve already spent Saturday stupefied by sleep and acetaminophen, Tom Jones crooning in the back of my head as the specter of a vegan-chick from decades past chastised me for my ignorance of environmentalism. Despite a full-day of couch-bound recovery my 11:30 p.m. alarm sounded all too soon, reminding me just how out of practice I am at celebrating on a professional level. Despite that being a positive step, it proved no consolation as I crawled bleakly from bed, drank a quart of Gatorade and a pot of coffee, and headed shakily out the door to drag my trailer through the long and lonely hours with only lounge-lyrics to keep me company. To be certain, the last thing I needed is a broken headlight and a tractor enveloped in entrails.

Fifteen minutes after the deer’s demise, I hit the cheap, neon smear of Madras and gear down into the J&L Truckstop. The lot teems with Kenworths and cattle-trailers but I spy a lucky slot, weasel my Freightliner alongside an empty stock-trailer and climb down into the bitter morning breeze. I instantly forget my headlight as the scent of fried food wafts from the restaurant attached to the Fuel Station, my hangover morphing into a huge and empty hunger.

It’s blessedly warm inside and I grab a stool at the counter, peruse a discarded issue of The Truck Paper—as if the purchase of a Peterbilt might be in my plans—and glance over the clientele: Skinny men and heavy women in greasy jeans and quilted flannel speak in quiet tones, cutlery clinking as they hunch in vinyl booths and shovel away shapeless masses of food. Ball-caps advertise transmission shops and feed-lots. Cowboy boots clunk as customers come and go. And though I expected the auditory-anguish of the New Country Music so favored in Central Oregon, my ears are incongruently assaulted by Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” setting up another echo that’s bound to torture my mind for miles to come.

Presently the waitress arrives, a muscular matron in her mid ‘fifties who clearly runs the show with her omnipresent coffee-pot and careworn face. She plunks down a heavy cup and fills it with a practiced dip of her work-hardened wrist.

“Yew wan’ the spacial?” she twangs, nasal in a way that belongs to nobody west of Warm Springs.

I consider asking what’s up with Neil Diamond but she drones on, “Beskits an’ gravee, tew aigs, cawfee fer fahve-nahnny-nahn.”

I’m in no mood for meat and I grunt my approval and reach for the smoldering coffee. It’s a schizophrenic brew, as weak in flavor as it is high in caffeine, redolent of a mouthful of burnt-toast and a nose full of cheap cocaine. I lean back and take in the faux-Navajo tapestries, down-home drapes with printed lace-edges, pre-scuffed laminate floor—depressing attempts at a culture as over-wrought as the drooping mustaches and butt-tight Wranglers favored by the livestock-drivers.

Neil Diamond gives way to the Bee Gee’s “Night Fever” and a pre-made platter plunks down in front of me, covered in a steaming gelatinous grey-matter approximating milk-gravy. I locate biscuits that must be three-parts Bondo to one-part flour and bring a quivering fork-load to my mouth, stunned nearly to cardiac-arrest by the staggering sodium content. I hit the coffee again, upend the pepper shaker over the mélange and manage to ingest two of the four biscuits along with a collateral portion of something yolk-like and rubbery.

After an interminable interval interspersed with a number from Captain and Tennile, I drain my coffee, slap a ten on the counter and beeline for the adjoining mini-mart to see about some Maalox and a new headlight. As if on cue, Hall and Oates come over the airwaves, serenading my exit with, “I Can’t Go For That.”

You boys got that I right, I figure, uncapping the medicine and taking a deep, chalky pull as I head toward my blood-spattered semi. I’ll be paying my penance all the way to Portland and though there’ll be nary a New Country song involved, nobody can say how long Hall and Oates will hang around.

And that’s one thing I am to blame for.

Bad Company

Sunday night, late November 2009. I wake from a nightmare where I’m trying to leave for work but first I have to defend my thesis, teach my three-year old to skateboard, calm a screaming baby, order parts for my pickup, negotiate an overdue medical bill, hang a new front door, plan a surf trip, fix my bicycle, do a little job-hunting and have a financial discussion with my wife—but whenever she opens her mouth, her words are replaced by Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers warbling away on an acoustic number titled Seagull.

“Seagull, you must’ve known for a long time,” sings Wifey-Rodgers, finger-wagging, hand on her hip in a matter-of-fact posture, “The shape of things to come. Now you fly through the sky, never asking why…”

And I snap my eyes open, tangled in a woolen blanket, sweating like a stuck pig and slam my fist down on the clock-radio, thereby silencing any further musings from those crusty Casino Rockers. The angry red digital reads 8 p.m., and I nodded off after 6.

With only an hour and a half of sleep, I’m all-too aware the nightmare bears a striking resemblance to my waking life: Full-time grad student and full-time trucker, father of two kids under three, husband of one over-worked wife, owner of a ’66 Chevy Truck, occasional handyman, skateboarder, surfer, recent recipient of a BA from Portland State University…

And to further compound issues, my brand-new laptop shit the bed last week; I have a huge final paper due in my 500-level Social Science course, both the kids have terrible colds, and my ancient PC crashed this afternoon, thereby negating hours of editing. Naturally, I reacted by slamming shit around the closet I call my office, bellowing like a Bull Elk and getting in an argument with my wife who is no fan of my prodigious temper.

And now, frayed beyond description and days beyond exhaustion, I have to go to work.

I stagger through the shower, struggle into Carhartts, boots and a sweatshirt and sheepishly accept the lunch my wife has packed. Outside, I fire up my frigid old Chevy and drag my exhausted ass across the river to school for a quick stop at the library to check my email. Shortly before my computer crashed, I sent out a flood of cover-letters and resumés explaining my achievements, experience and aspirations. I am seeking all manner of jobs from Transportation Management to Grant Writing, Nonprofit Directorship, Heavy Equipment Sales, Market Research and Copy Editing

I’d also sent an instructor an earlier draft of my thesis-proposal and my research plans, which I titled, “From Kook to Killing it: An Ethnography of Surfing in The Pacific Northwest,” and I’d attached an exhaustive research plan involving interviews of notable locals, an annotated bibliography of the history of surfing here on our wind-battered coast, police reports and first-person anecdotes of the tribe-like life-ways and insular localism surrounding the sport—essentially everything one would need to begin a scholarly inquiry into the arc a surfer might travel from fledgling beginner to accepted expert.

The amount of sleep I will garner in the next 48 hours rests heavily on my instructor’s response to the approach I’ve spent hours putting together. Needless to say, I am in no mood to rewrite a term-project.

“Get real,” she writes in response. “You need to spend some time researching the difference between Grounded Theory and Ethnographic questions.”

To say the least, I’m pissed. First off, she’s splitting hairs and second off, I’ve never been told to ‘get real’ by a professor, especially a quintessential Social Science hack like her. She’s the very stereotype of tenured academia: Long flowing skirts, an excess of silver jewelry, liberal to a fault, a waifish product of the ‘sixties and endlessly reminding us of that fact. We’ve spent the better part of the term listening to her drift from topic to topic with no discernible thread, nodding and punctuating her sentences with a starry-eyed “yeah.” At least once a week, she’s slapped her Departmental Map on the projector—essentially a disorganized flow-sheet of bubbles and arrows outlining the interests, paradigms and intellectual facets of the Communication Studies Department.

“Yeah, before I started here at PSU, the Communication Department wasn’t communicating,” she’ll drone. “Yeah, so we had a process-oriented workshop and this was the outcome. Yeah… It’s really neat to see the results and the various places from which our collective academic thinking derives and overlaps.”

And she stands there beaming, oblivious to fact that not one person in the room has any idea what the fuck she’s talking about.

Defeated and irritated, I drive south to the cavernous produce warehouse where my semi sits loaded and waiting. Despite the forced-insomina, I’m glad for the escape of my thrice-weekly 537-mile round-trip to Port Angeles, Washington. I can do this shit in my sleep. In fact, I do this shit in my sleep.

I hit the yard on autopilot: load my lunch and toolbox into the Freightliner, tilt the nose, check oil, belt tension, coolant and power steering fluids. I climb up in the cab, check the brakes are set, slip the tranny in neutral, hit the starter and fire that sleepy diesel into roaring life. It’s three days after Thanksgiving and I’ve got a light load as a result. From the looks of my bills, I’m pushing 30 tons at best, ten shy of my legal limit, and most of it occupying the front two-thirds of my 48’ trailer.

By 11, the paperwork’s done and I’m rolling up Interstate 5 with a fresh cup of coffee in my hand. It’s a soft, foggy night, cool and quiet on the highway. I drop down into eighth gear over Sylvania Hill, my 500-horse Detroit Diesel making short work of a small knot of slower trucks as I crest the hilltop, flip on my jake-brakes, and begin my descent through the Terwilliger Curves into Portland.

I pass a fully-loaded log truck inside the second corner and kick my truck up to a smooth 60 down the wide, empty straightaway above Lair Hill. This is my kind of trucking: late night, not a soul on the road but us pros, and a nice, relaxing run into the hinterlands of Northern Washington. The phone’s not ringing, kids aren’t screaming and mentally, I’m nowhere near Portland State University. It’s a sad state of affairs when trucking relaxes me, but I learned long ago to take what I can get.  And I despite myself, I have hopes of finding a new job, too.

I grab a steaming sip of coffee as I round the last curve into Portland, park my cup in its holder, look up and there’s a row of cars ahead of me, three-lanes deep and none of them moving. Adrenaline surges through me and I bring a boot to my service brake and double-downshift, the night’s quiet shattered by my roaring jakes and screeching tires. Almost immediately, my trailer jackknifes to the left. Simultaneously, I let off the brake and yank down the trolley valve—locking the trailer brakes but keeping the tractor rolling. I floor the fuel pedal, break the tractor tires loose and whip my wheel right, drifting the tractor away from the jackknife, sliding the entire truck to a thundering sideways-stop, just feet behind the parked cars.

I grab the CB-mic and key up on Channel 17, “Brake-check at the 299! Brake check at the 299!” I yell, looking up as the log truck goes hammering past the nose of my tractor with inches to spare, all 18 of his wheels locked in a chattering skid as he flails over the median and onto the fortuitously-located Ross Island off-ramp, barely missing a broadside collision with me.

“Northbound, we’re shut down at the 299! Slow ‘em down!” I roar into the CB, hoping any trucks up the hill have their radios on.

“Nice fuckin’ place for parked cars,” comments the log trucker, his surprise, fear, and anger audible over the airwaves.

With the smell of burnt rubber hanging in the air and my heart pounding in my chest, I look ahead to see why traffic is stopped: A Ford Expedition, or what’s left of one, rests on it’s side in the center lane a hundred yards down the highway, steam still rising from the obliterated front-end. Every window is broken, and there’s not a straight panel left—just a balled up metal mess and a debris trail. There aren’t any emergency vehicles yet either, just some stopped cars and one police officer waving traffic back toward the obvious off-ramp detour my log-trucking friend just took.

I drop the truck down into low and swing my tractor out wide. A few more trucks come creeping off the grade behind me, obviously heeding my warning, and I get in line and start down the off ramp, glancing out my window as I go. And there on the asphalt shoulder, 20 feet from my cab is a human being, or what’s left of one—assuredly ejected from the wreck down the road.

From the jeans and the sweatshirt and violence of the single-car accident, I assume the unnaturally twisted rag-doll is a young guy with a heavy foot, though there’s blood everywhere, dark in the street lights and pooling around the indiscernible form, obscuring any real possibility of identification. It’s clear his spine’s broken because he’s sprawled both on his back and almost on his stomach, hips plainly spun 270 degrees from their normal position. I can see a bit of his moppy, brownish hair clinging to his pulpy skull, which is horribly elongated and shaped like a butternut squash. His legs are shattered too, twisted and piled like tree-limbs after a windstorm, half under him, and half splayed out, bare-feet pointing in unnatural directions. One arm is clearly dislocated and rests above his head. The other doesn’t appear to be there at all, and that shocks me almost as much as the police-officer, who drapes a blanket over the form, leaving the head exposed.

While I’m certainly no stranger to death on the highway, it’s the most graphic thing I’ve ever seen a human body subjected to and I am numb with the shock of it. Back on the road, I ease the truck up to a steady 60 and start to digest the scene.

Somewhere back in the miles and the years, I heard truck-driving described as a good thing for a terrible person and a terrible thing for a good person. Like most drivers, I fall somewhere in the middle. And while I don’t care to count the number of hours I’ve logged alone with nothing but dashlights and demons, I’m all too aware of the shape these haunted thoughts can take. Foremost of them—and I’d bet dollars to doughnuts every trucker has it in the back of their mind—I wonder if there’s a mile-marker out there with my name on it? The near-misses, the wrecks, the snow, black ice, fog, rain, drunk-drivers, the perpetual exhaustion—your luck has to run out somewhere and the reaper is quick to settle accounts.

Death was there at the 299, I figured, and he got that poor soul and very nearly took me, a log-trucker, and the occupants of a few parked cars with him.

The miles tick on as I run up into the black night of Central Washington and the inevitable questions come: Why am I out here doing this for a living? What the fuck is wrong with me? How did I avoid that accident? What did I do differently? What if I’d moved a little faster getting dressed, or taken the curves a bit slower? Fuck man, if that log-truck was even the slightest bit closer to me…

Usually in this situation, my thoughts wind up like a runaway Kenworth until I pull over somewhere, conk out for an hour or two, and then high-tail it through the rest of the run. Not this night. I float through the wee hours, taking it easy, smoothing out every shift in my ten-gear pattern, kissing each dock I back into with the most gentle of taps, keeping the speedo steady and the brakes cool, thinking about my kids, my wife, my friends, the years I’ve spent trucking around the Pacific Northwest.

I make it back to Tualatin the next day around noon, unload and head home, passing mile-marker 299 at exactly 55 mph. I nap, shower, eat some dinner, play with my kids for almost 30 minutes and then head over the river to school. Back at a computer in the library, I find absolutely zero replies to the countless queries I’d sent out 24 hours before and I am both utterly discouraged and utterly unsurprised.  While I enjoy Communication Studies, I wonder what job it’s supposed to lead to.

Idly, I check out the day’s news, where I learn that the victim of  last night’s accident died later at the hospital. And suddenly I realize why the officer didn’t cover him entirely: When I drove past him, he was still alive, and likely in excruciating pain. Shocked and guilt-wracked for gawking at a dying man, I read on and learn he liked to DJ and spend time with his friends. I learn he is survived by a grieving family. I learn his life encompassed a scant 20 years. And I wonder as I walk across the leafy campus to my class, if he lived it well. I wonder too, if I’m living mine well.

Class is the same old scene and my instructor arrives characteristically late and begins her lecture with an analogy of kayaking in the ‘sixties versus kayaking now. There is no point to her tale and she naturally segues into her departmental map as the class doodle, clock-watch, and play on their lap-tops. “Now, for example, Dr. Kettlemeier works with grounded theory—which is essentially an Ethnographic approach,” she exhales nodding and rearranging some sort of batik-shawl about her shoulders. “Yeah… Now, who can tell me which instructors have similar approaches to the ethnographic paradigm?”

Nobody answers.

“Dave?” she calls, looking wildly around as if I’m nowhere to be found. “Maybe you can help us out, yeah? Dave is doing an Ethnographic Study of Northwestern Surfing,” she says, nodding emphatically, “Yeah…”

I sit for what feels like an eternity, staring into her watery eyes, realizing how utterly pointless such an endeavor actually sounds.

“No,” I tell her, picking up my book bag and starting for the door. “I’m not.”

“Uh, uh, I’m sorry?” she stammers, shaking her head, blinking as if my words have driven sand into her pupils. “You’re not? I don’t understand… Where are you going?”

“I’m going to get real,” I explain, my reference to her hypocrisy seeming to register in her shocked eyes. “And the only thing I’ve learned this term is that I can’t do that here.”

There’s an audible gasp and more than a few chuckles as I leave grad school forever.

Heading home, I feel light and unencumbered for the first time in years. I think of the kid on the highway and I think of my kids and I go home and unplug my alarm clock. I lay down to rest, every possibility I can imagine spread before me in my mind. I am not sure what I’ll do, but I’m proud of my decision, and have greatly lessened my chances of ever waking up to Bad Company again.

I’ll take what I can get.

The Kitsap County Coffee Caper

You don’t know what rain is until you’ve driven State Route 3 northbound out of Olympia in the wet season. It’s late autumn 2009, the wee hours of a Friday, and this fact is becoming all too clear as I gaze out my moisture-smeared window at the blurry lights of Shelton Bay.

It’s been a long week made longer by a short-handed driver’s roster, and I’ve picked up a lot more work than I wanted. Monday, I mashed out six-hundred sodden miles through Sequim and Montesano, followed by Tacoma on Tuesday, creeping through the congestion and endless eyesores of I-5. Wednesday, I wound over the Willipa Hills into the forgotten fogs and cranberry bogs of Gray’s Harbor. Thursday, I battled a biting blizzard and alpine ice in the middle of the mountain night, tire-chains grappling for traction on the roller-coaster grades of White Pass.

Tonight, it’s finally Friday and I’m halfway through another six hundred miler and bound for Sequim again. I made my last drop half an hour ago in West Olympia with eight more legal-hours left in my logbook. I decided to take SR 3 to the Hood Canal Bridge and cut over 104 to the 101 Junction, rather than simply taking 101 north all the way to Sequim. It’ll add 15 miles to my route, but this way I can get much-needed coffee in Shelton and Poulsbo and run on a well-lit four-lane road. On the pitch-black winding two-lane of 101, I’d be lucky to see another vehicle on a lonely night like this, much less find an open convenience store.

I leave Shelton in my mirrors and an hour later I’m lost in the fog somewhere south of Poulsbo, my wipers beating a metronomic lullaby over the omnipresent hiss of my radials on the wet road, my big Detroit Diesel gurgling away in chorus. Up in the cab, my heater is wafting blast-furnace gusts at me and outside my headlights knife through the downpour and illuminate nothing but the hypnoticly-segmented white line unfurling before me. My eyes grow heavier at approximately the same rate as the rain and I close them for just a second. Just a second…

I snap-to from the descending curtain of sleep in a wash of panic and glance down at my speedometer where my worst fears are confirmed: I’m pushing 80 miles per hour now, over in the left lane and totally unaware of it; an unconscious reaction to my exhaustion, my mind telling my foot to hurry it up so I can get home and go to bed.

“Goddamn rookie,” I chastise myself. “Should’ve stopped an hour ago.” I force my leaden eyes to the road ahead and make out the glowing sign of a truck-stop looming in the rain and fog. I throw a double-downshift, flip on my jake’s and bring my right foot to the service brake, diesel howling in protest as I bring my left-lane-freight-train off the highway and onto the access road.

To be fair, this really isn’t a truck-stop at all, just a glorified gas-station with enough parking for half a dozen rigs and a few cars. To be sure, I couldn’t give a give a fuck less. The lot is empty save for a beat-up old Honda and I pull past it, set the brakes, flip up the hood of my sweatshirt, cross my arms over the steering wheel, and I’m out before my head goes down. I don’t have a sleeper-cab and even if I did, the herculean energy I would expend getting out of my seat and into the bunk just isn’t in me tonight.

Thing is, no matter how tired you are, the large, plastic steering wheel of a Freightliner Century just isn’t conducive to comfortable slumber. Some indeterminate time later, I awaken to a numb arm and the sound of the ever-pouring rain. I sit up, wipe the slobber from my sleeve and take in my surroundings. The pump-island glows through the fog and the lot is still empty save for the little Honda which I can hardly see for the condensation in my mirrors. I grab my coffee-cup and hurry through the rain to the store.

Inside, the clerk greets me with his usual tired joke about the weather. “Morning,” he begins, pawing at his weak, grizzled chin. “Wet enough for you out there?”

“Liquid sunshine,” I answer, keeping to the script and heading for the sweet salvation of the coffee-urns. He’s a nice-enough guy, I guess, always wearing the same Seahawks jersey, filthy green sweatpants and NRA hat, always making the same tired workaday cracks—which is pretty much always about the rain here on the North Kitsap Peninsula.

“We having fun yet?” he asks as I give him $1.75.

“Livin’ the dream,” I offer, heading out into the weather with my coffee, making sure to be polite to the clerk at the only coffee-stop in 60 miles. He may not know it, but he’s saved my life a lot of times.

Then, as I start across the lot, the little Honda’s brake-lights flash off and on a few times. Probably somebody trying to sleep off a drunk in there, I figure, hurrying toward my truck. But as I climb into the cab, the lights flash off and on again—high-beams and interior light included—and I make out what I think is the shape of a woman’s head and some sort of odd thrashing around. I set down my coffee and watch for a second, straining to see through the rain.

Again the lights go off and on at random. And now I’m sure there’s something shady happening. Maybe somebody is hurt in there? Maybe a drug overdose? A stroke? I climb out of the cab and approach the back of my trailer, discreetly opening my knife and slipping it up my sleeve before walking over toward the passenger side of the car. After all, it’s a tweaky-looking piece of lowrider-crap with a primer-fender, mismatched door and a duct-taped sunroof. Something’s amiss but I’ll be damned if my exhausted ass knows what it is.

Then the passenger window comes down, revealing the shape of a woman reclining in the driver-seat.

“You okay in there?” I holler, keeping my distance.

“I’m just fine,” she smiles, flipping on the interior lamp and coyly propping her head on her elbow, the light illuminating her cheap, blond-streaked wig, glittery blouse, mini-skirt, and… Her five o’clock shadow.

“Whoa,” I say, immediately realizing what the hell is going on and feeling like an even bigger rookie than ever. “Have a nice night.”

I back away fast and get ol’ Dirty Thirty rolling down the road. And I have to laugh at myself a little. Had I been in one of the big truck-stops along I-5, any vehicle bumping it’s lights off and on would have just one meaning and I’d know it in a heartbeat and avoid it even quicker: Somebody wants something they can’t buy inside, usually company or crank, and the truck-stop prostitutes—Lot Lizards—are only too glad to offer their services in exchange for cash, drugs, a ride somewhere, a firearm, a cell-phone, a hot meal… For both parties, gender consideration is relative to desperation.

As a rule, I willfully ignore this sad side of my trade. I fuel myself on coffee, drive a day-cab and haul regionally, so I go home to my wife and kids everyday. Outside of repairs, I have little need for truck-stops, though I am always on my guard when I visit one: Despite being a boringly-straight married guy with no appetite for meth or mangina, I can still get robbed easily enough. Furthermore, were I single and running Over The Road, I’d like to think I could attract some intimate company without resorting to barter with cross-dressers.

Lesson learned, I figure, heading out onto The Hood Canal floating bridge. Keep your guard up. The trucker-fuckers exist, even at a tiny gas-station in rural Washington. And despite how far off their usual hunting grounds it might seem, one still managed to lure a hyper-wary driver like me into talking distance. I chalk it up to experience and put it from my mind.

That winter, I run three overnight trips a week between Portland and Port Angeles, through the huge, forested land of dark rain and deserted roads. I see the beat-up Honda a few more times, once parked behind a log-truck in a turnout on 101, and again a few days before New Year at a denuded Christmas Tree lot in East Bremerton—the latter somehow lonelier than the former.

Spring comes around at last, impossibly alive and newly-green in the densely wooded country of the Peninsula. After the dark hibernation of winter, the days are bright and the sun sparkles on the waters of Puget Sound. The nights are warming and clear with stars beyond number. Roads fill with tourist traffic and freight trucks. And the high summits of the Olympics dazzle under their trackless mantles of pure white, reminding the year-round residents why they live where they do.

For a produce hauler, it’s a busy time of year and Friday, April 23, 2010 finds me exhausted and northbound on SR 3. Aside from my three scheduled Port Angeles routes, I’ve covered two runs over the high country of Mt. Hood, logging 2000 miles since Monday. When I punch out this week, I’ll be close to my 70 hour maximum and I’m feeling every bit of it.

It’s a clear night, soft and breezy, the leafy smell of summer in the air. I’ve got one more stop, 300 miles to drive and NPR’s “Morning Edition” will be on the air shortly—just the thing to wake me up. It’s high time for a cup of coffee and I need to take a leak, so just as I have so many times before, I double downshift, hit my jake’s and come swinging into the biggest little convenience market on the Kitsap Peninsula. I turn wide into empty lot—past a red Mazda Miata—set the brakes, grab my coffee cup and head across the lot toward the store, vaguely wondering what hackneyed greeting I’ll get from the clerk tonight.

The counter is deserted as I step inside and head past the coffee urns toward the restroom. I’m not concerned though. Often at this hour my favorite Seahawks fan is in the little kitchenette in back, frying up tornadoes and jalapeno-poppers for the hungover morning trade.

“Hello!” I call out, not wanting to startle anybody and get myself shot by a trigger-happy gas-station clerk.


He’s probably busy, I figure, turning down a narrow hallway toward the restroom. The door is closed, as it usually is, and I twist the knob and shoulder it open, since I know it sticks.

And there is the clerk, sitting on the toilet with his green sweats around his ankles, knobby old-man’s knees stark and bare in the fluorescent lights. And there on his lap is what I assume to be the autumnal Lot Lizard, mini-skirt hiked up over his ass, hairy thighs splayed out, blonde-streaked wig akimbo as he bounces up and down on the old guy’s pecker.

“WHAT THE FUCK?!” I yell, slamming the door shut and stepping away, more stunned than repulsed.

“LOCK THE FUCKING DOOR,” I roar, as I beeline back down the hall. I stand there a moment in the mini-mart, amid the jerky and the Twinkies and the coffee urns. Nobody comes out of the restroom and there’s clearly a foul and rhythmic noise perceptible over the New Country twang of the radio behind the counter.

Fuck this, I decide. I fill up my coffee, leave a few bucks on the counter and get the hell out of there, the revulsion setting as I put some miles behind me.

Let me be clear here: I have nothing against anyone’s sexuality. Outside of my vanilla urges, I am concerned only with those of my partner. Likewise, I am well-aware of the numerous appendages and orifices shared by most human beings and the countless ways in which these are utilized—often contrary to their intended design. To be blunt: I have an internet connection.

Also, I live in Oregon and I am an educated and at least semi-reasonable person, so I wholly support the rights of consenting parties to party how they see fit. I did not, however, care to see an amorous example of such shenanigans firsthand, especially one involving old men, mini-skirts and a mini-mart men’s-room. Furthermore, if what I witnessed was a mere transaction, I sincerely hope safe practices were employed. However, I am eternally grateful that the image locked in my mind does not extend to such Durex-details.

I roll north as the sun comes up, enjoying the wide vistas of Discovery Bay, glad the coffee is scalding hot and trying to remember if I’ve ever seen the clerk wearing those latex gloves required by the health department.

I snap the radio to NPR and catch a story about Security and Exchange Commission employees watching porn while they were supposed to be monitoring financial markets, and I laugh until coffee comes out my nose.

“Nobody is watching the market,” I tell the radio. “You don’t know the half of it.”

And in truth, none of us do. 

Always Plan Your Exit Upon Arrival

My troubles begin when I hit the yard at 10 p.m., my Chevy’s headlights illuminating the absence of Dirty Thirty, the stretched-out Freightliner I usually drive. I might’ve known, being as bad luck follows worse and I’d spent an unlucky evening trying to get my damned pickup running properly. And around 9 p.m., as I finally conquered the sticking exhaust valves, my wife came outside to tell me my alarm clock had gone off.

Now on zero sleep and frustrated by my still poorly running Chevy, I park, grab my clipboard and lunch pail and head toward the warehouse to see what the fuck gives.

Inside, it’s the usual scene of outbound orders and inbound freight, chaotic to the uninitiated eye, scripted efficiency to those in the know. Half a million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables sit on the dock, awaiting shipping or receiving. Pallet-jacks and speeding forklifts weave around the racks and refrigerated rooms, horns blaring and beeping under the florescent lights. Bleary-eyed warehousemen and truck drivers mill about, stacking crates, wrapping pallets in shrink film, joking, laughing, cussing, yelling. I wait for a break in the action, cross the main aisle and walk up a row of 1000-lb broccoli pallets toward the massive flannel-shirted man charged with running this rag-tag band.

Hey, Tons-of-Fun,” I jab a greasy finger in his ribs as he turns to face me. “What’s the story on my truck?”

Oh, hey Driver!” he booms, slapping at my finger with his clipboard and grinning maniacally through a bushy blonde goatee, his walleyed-stare coming into alignment as he gazes down at me. “Good news! Some dipshit swung into the yard last night and didn’t realize he needed to back his trailer in. And when he tried to turn it around, he wiped out Thirty’s driver-side mirror, so she’s over at Grommet’s waiting to get repaired.”

These fucking long-haulers…” I sigh, pulling my stocking hat off despite the cold-air and scratching my achey head. “Don’t back up more than once a week, good for nothing but holding a steering wheel… Fuck, I wish Wes’ was here!”

“Who the fuck’s Wes’?!” His brow knots in a gesture of challenge.

“Nobody. Keep your blouse on!” I pause, shaking my head as the memory of Wes’ comes up through the endless miles of time, a wizened old trucker, Marlboro clamped between thin, dry lips, eyes squinting through an ancient Peterbilt windshield at a destination somewhere over the horizon. “Wes’,” I explain, “is the old-school driver who showed me the ropes. He used to say, ‘Always plan your exit upon arrival. It’s a sorry excuse for a driver who goes backing out of something ass-first’.”

Fuckin’ A!” Tons-of-Fun lets go with a snort like a Bull Elk, his left eye wandering off-kilter as an errant loader streaks by. “Lookout, dumbass!” he roars, then turning conversationally to me, “That’s pretty good! I’m gonna use that!”

“Good advice for truckin’ and hard advice for livin’,” I nod.

“Oh, that reminds me,” he says, slamming a massive paw onto my shoulder, “you’ll never guess what you’re exiting the yard in tonight?” 

I tilt my head to the side and drop my jaw a little. “You gotta be kidding me.”

Nope!” He howls, ducking his huge head to mount his battle-scarred forklift. “Bills are in the office and your special lady’s in the yard! Slam your hand in the door and screw your boot to the floor!” And off he goes, laughing like a hyena, crewmen scattering before his screeching horn.

So I head out into the balmy spring night, not even bothering to check the equipment roster for a spare tractor. If Tons-of-Fun says I’m driving Screamin’ Jimmy, then rest assured, he doesn’t have any further interest in discussion. Despite being six and a half-feet of beer-fat over work muscle and bearing more than a passing resemblance to a freezer full of moose-meat, he’s damn good at balancing the demands of his job. Rest-assured he’s checked for any other option I might have. And tonight I have none.

I find Screamin’ Jimmy lurking under a leafy maple tree over in the far corner of the yard, rainbow rivulets of oil swirling lazily in the puddles under her running boards. She’s an International of some indeterminate ’80s vintage, with an ancient Detroit Diesel under the hood, a wide-ratio ten-speed, pad suspension, and a cab that fits like a farm-girl’s jeans. I tilt her hood, dump about three gallons of oil into her tired old motor, fill her fuel-filters with diesel since she’s forever losing her prime, and unload half a can of ether down her slobbering throat. Then I squeeze into the cab and hit the starter button. After a few coughing attempts, she roars into life, her single stack belching soot-black clouds into the pissy heavens.

I check her lights and wipers—amazed they work—and throttle across the yard to my trailer, my back already complaining against the rock-hard ride and the cramped little seat. Hell, it won’t be that hard of a night, I figure, as I hook up my air-lines and creep off the dock. I learned in trucks harder than this…

Boy howdy, when I figure wrong, I figure wrong like a nun in a titty bar.

Thing about the old Detroit’s is how efficiently they convert diesel into noise and heat. When Tons-of-Fun advised I smash my digits in the door-frame and affix my foot to the fuel-pedal, he meant exactly that: If you want to wring any kind of performance out of those gutless wonders, you gotta make ’em scream like drunken prom date. It’s been that same way since the late ‘thirties when Detroit’s were still called GM Diesels, hence the ‘Jimmy’ moniker. Sometime before it fell off, the tag on Screamin’ Jimmy’s cylinder-head claimed a laughable 350 horsepower—and that running at red-line with a tailwind and a steep grade—whereas Dirty Thirty puts almost twice as much to the road without any fuss. 

And Sweet Jesus, the temperature! It’s a warm, wet, late-spring night as I claw my way north on Interstate 5, and it dawns into a warmer, wetter Western Washington day—heavy rain interspersed with mist, drizzle, and an easy 65 degrees. In the cab, it’s got to be 140 with the humidity. After all, I’m smashed behind a red-hot 2500-lb cast-iron engine with a thousand pounds of similarly sizzling transmission under the floor. There’s no a/c to be had and I have a ten-stop run to crank out and 537 miles to drive. I skin down to my skivvies and a t-shirt, and search for a happy medium with the window: Somewhere between soaking and sweltering.

Between my pre-exisiting exhaustion and the sauna-like cab, I start in on a serious coffee binge just north of Castle Rock, pulling on my pants and visiting every gas-station, truck-stop and roadhouse through the dark, damp night of Tacoma, Port Orchard, Silverdale, Port Townsend, Sequim and Port Angeles, where I make my final delivery. Wes’ would be proud, I figure, the freight went where it had to go, the customers are happy and I’m paid by the hour. I climb back in the cab, get situated and begin grinding out the long miles to home.

I make Tacoma at about 10 a.m., steamed to the point of delirium and awake now for 26 hours. The rain lets up and just as I start to think I’m catching a break, I am wracked by urgent gastrointestinal rumblings. Coffee being full of caffeine—long known for it’s assistance in the arena of evacuation—and me having downed an easy seven or eight pints of the stuff, I hastily consider my options.

One of the many difficulties of driving a semi is finding a place that offers healthy food, strong coffee, clean restrooms and enough parking to accommodate a 70-foot semi. A judicious driver—and I count myself squarely as such—keeps a constantly updated mental-map of places meeting the above criteria. Starbucks and Chevron Stations are particular favorites of mine, both serving decent java, carrying a variety of cereal bars, fruit juices, and daily newspapers—and every bit as important: Offering clean, commodious single-occupancy restrooms. Without putting too fine a point on it, there are few aspects of being a truck-driver as repugnant as a morning visit to the long row of crowded stalls at busy truck-stop.

The ability to close and lock a proper door, turn on a fan and privately take care of one’s personal itinerary is an aspect of civility denied the common trucker. And after my barbarous night, I had a pressing need for a little amenity in my ablutions. So pressing in fact is my need that I opt for a Starbucks I’ve never visited and realize as I come downshifting into range of the driveway that I’ll never be able to turn around in their parking lot.

With the words of Wes’ again ringing in my ears, I swing Screamin’ Jimmy out over six-lanes of traffic and line up the ass-end of my 48′ trailer with the driveway. I stuff her in reverse, drop the hammer and back neatly down one side of the lot, my howling diesel accompanied by a chorus of horns from the angry motorists on Pacific Highway. I casually shut her down and shimmy into my trousers and boots, grab my coffee cup and make a beeline for the bathroom.

Inside, it’s the usual scene after the morning rush. A few straggling patrons glance up to take a gander at the crazed trucker who just momentarily blocked a state-highway. The counter girls wipe down the gleaming machinery. Some sort of new-age Kenny-G music wafts from the speakers.

What can I get started for you?” asks a barista, intercepting me as I stride purposely past the counter. She’s a beautiful blonde girl of maybe 20, curvey, slender and from the look on her delicately-built face, she isn’t impressed with my expert backing-skills.

Just a regular ol’ cup of coffee, please,” I answer, feeling like an incredibly foul, sweaty and corpulent hillbilly in comparison to her willowy, youthful grace.

She offers me a blank stare, regular ol’ not being part of her lexicon.

Um, a Double-shot Americano, I think you guys call it?” I offer, hoping my knowledge will somehow make up for the fact I reek of diesel. “And I’m really sorry to ask, but could you rinse out my travel mug?”

If you can give a minute, I would be glad to,” she replies, her brilliantine teeth flashing shark-like as she smiles and takes my sticker-plastered travel mug between thumb and forefinger. I cringe and take a second to consider the wisdom of the “I Heart Tits” decal affixed to it’s coffee-splattered body. “Do you have a name for that Americano?”

Just Dave,” I tell her, trying to look anywhere but at her chest, desperately grabbing a Tacoma News-Tribune and stopping myself just short of announcing that I’m going to use the restroom. “Just Dave.”

Double Americano for Just Dave,” she calls out, her warm, efficient smile still plastered to her face as I hand her a a ten. I don’t even bother waiting for change.

In the restroom, I shut the door and breathe deeply. It’s every bit the clean and commodious facility I’d expected: Sink, toilet, towel-dispensers, changing-table and plenty of warm, sanitary tile. And after that terrifying exchange, I’m moved to wash before attending to up other matters. Rather than get water all over my shirt and be forced to face that baleful beauty of a barista, I pull my t-shirt over my head, toss it on top of the paper-towel dispenser and spend several minutes working a fine, soapy lather over my face, chin, neck, hands and wrists. I rinse with copious amounts of gloriously clean, hot water, followed by equal amounts of bracing cold, feeling utterly refreshed for the first time since I started this run.

Then I realize there’s no paper towels to be had. No worries, I figure, calmed enough by the cleansing to take care of that other order of business. I’ll dry off by the time I’m done, right? So rather than pull my shirt back on, I drop my drawers, mount the porcelain throne, turn to the International News Section, and with Kenny G warbling inoffensively away in the background, I commence doing that thing we all do.

Mercifully, there is still a full roll of toilet paper and presently, I set the News-Tribune aside, grab a handful of two-ply, allow myself a courteous left-cheek lean, so as I might deftly apply the proper motion…

And just then, the door-knob rattles, turns, and in walks the blonde-girl, mop in hand, same look of innocent grace on her finely-featured face. “OHMIGOD!” she yells, her voice alarmingly full against the tiled walls as she finds me wide-eyed, damp-faced and bare-chested with my pants around my ankles—nude for all intents and purposes—perched atop the shitter, in the midst of a rather personal moment.

OHMIGOD” she yells again, quickly beating her retreat. “OH. MY. GOD!”

And then I am alone with nothing but the wise words of Wes’ ringing in my rapidly-reddening ears.

Momentarily, I finish matters up, pull on my t-shirt and wash my hands again.

Out in the restaurant, Kenny G’s perpetual sax has given way to the saccharine screeching of Colbie Caillat, the few remaining customers are eyeing me with a mixture of suspicion or fear and the baristas have all assumed that horrendous corporate smile. Flanked by an equally willowy young man, the blonde girl is safely behind the counter where my travel mug now rests, steaming seductively, alerting all who may pass by that yes, the owner of this mug indeed loves tits.

I saunter over and nod to the blonde girl.

Just Dave,” I tell her, raising my cup and turning toward the restaurant and the door. “Just Dave.”


Here’s to Another Forty!


I often think I am a rarity in this day and age—at least here in Portland—a man who doesn’t feel like he needs to apologize for being male. Being as such, I am not supposed to give a damn about this milestone in my life. Yet according to CDC statistics, the average American male will live 78.7 years, and so today my life is a little more than halfway over. Based on the longevity of my family members, I’m either going to croak in a dozen years, or live well into my toothless soup-drinking nineties.

To be honest, both sound pretty dismal. And if I am further honest, I am utterly shocked to have made it to forty. It’s been said that were it not for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any at all. But it’s also said that when one door closes another opens…

A few highlights: At less than a year old, my mother and I were laid up with pneumonia in a desolate, weather-wracked part of the Scottish Highlands that had yet to know electricity. The doctor summoned a priest to our thatched-roof croft, and he administered our last rites, as we were not expected to last through the night. Yet we survived, and to this day I harbor a deep suspicion of organized religion, the upside of which is an ability to engage in critical thinking without wading through the clutter of dogma.

At six, I tripped while in a dead-run and fell head-long into the sharp corner of a concrete wall. The ensuing concussion knocked me out cold and resulted in a visit to a draconian Scottish hospital where the orderly admonished me for getting blood on my trousers. To this day, my skull hurts where the scar remains, and I’ve been diagnosed as having the mental issues associated with Traumatic Brain Injury—ADHD, poor impulse control, and a blistering internal monologue among them. The upside of the latter is an almost clairvoyant ability to see the outcome of a situation before it happens. Now, if I could just control it…

At seven, we emigrated to the states—though my mom felt it best to couch it as a vacation—and I endured further playground blows to the head over the endless kilt-jokes and references to Star Trek’s Scotty. Naturally, I inflicted more than a few blows of my own before learning how much more damaging my tongue could be. So began a school-career fraught with suspensions, expulsions, and some of the best one-liners in the history of student shit-talk. Aside from the aforementioned possibility of TBI, many a mental-health practitioner decided I suffer PTSD from the shattering realization of learning we weren’t going home. Ever. Be that as it may, I know my ancestry and my heritage far better than most people, I have no fear of a fight, and hyper-vigilance—a PTSD symptom—really isn’t a detriment in a world rife with dangers.

At seven and a half, I discovered the skateboard and so began a love affair that cost me five broken arms (three left and two right), numerous fractures of the skull, a split-femur, fractured tibia and fibula, a longitudinal sternum separation, busted ribs, a floating left collarbone, and endless sprains and breaks to both ankles and wrists. I endured a nasty tear of the left-shoulder rotator-cup, several subsequent dislocations, and tore open my left kidney—which healed improperly and caused kidney stones by the score. I have 27 screws and four metal plates in my arms, 28 staples on aforementioned organ, and a case of overuse arthritis like you can’t imagine, none of which I would trade for the world. After all, I grew up in Portland, Oregon, ground-zero for the best skateboarding on earth, and I got to watch and contribute to skateboarding’s explosive growth.

At 10, my parents began a protracted divorce that probably festered since the day they met, setting me on a road to some really fucking bad relationships and a sense of failure I carried for decades, despite their decisions not being my responsibility and all being fair in love and war. I also discovered marijuana around this time, though refrained from daily use for a few more years. Still, getting high when you’re 10 is a hell of thing. You haven’t laughed at fart jokes like I have… And you think you had fun catching frogs, building forts and fishing your local creek? That shit blew my fucking mind! And honestly, I think smoking weed along Beaverton Creek cemented my immutable love of the outdoors.

At 11, I began classes at Meadow Park Jr. High, where I instantly connected with the kids who had skateboards, Iron Maiden t-shirts, broken homes, and strong drugs. I became a much better skateboarder, stopped getting in so many fights, really enjoyed my after-school snacks, and would skip classes to sit in the library and read Kerouac, Burroughs, Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson. Also, some Judy Blume.

At 12, my dad officially moved out, though between his job and my mom’s often unreasonable expectations, he’d been around mainly on weekends and little more. Also, we’d moved to a trailer park, and my access to drugs and alcohol—and my subsequent use—skyrocketed. However, trailer-park girls were plentiful, liked Iron Maiden, and their single-parents were rarely home. One might say moving to the trailer-park was a stroke of good fortune. You might even say I got lucky.

At 13, I got a summer job on a farm bucking hay. Too small to keep up with the bigger kids, the farmer put me behind the wheel of an ancient International Harvester Flatbed, and by the summer’s end I could get a semi down a farm road, albeit slowly and in a terrifying manner. So began a love-affair not unlike my skateboarding infatuation: Never quite in control, always hauling ass, never stopping for long, and nobody is over my shoulder telling me what to do. I realized I could live with that kind of work, and I still do.

At 15, with the divorce’s finalization looming, my mom busted me for smoking weed. In the ensuing fall-out, my cocaine use came to light, as did my flirtation with LSD, speed, mescaline, copious amounts of alcohol, whatever pills I could come across, a little heroin, and anything else that might get me high. Needless to say, treatment didn’t work and I stayed more or less drugged up until my early twenties. How I avoided becoming another trailer-park drug-casualty is beyond explanation. And though at times my life seemed pretty bleak, I had the highest of highs and attained a certain notoriety in party-circles. There is something to be said about dropping acid, snorting coke, smoking weed, downing half a bottle of whiskey and riding a snowboard buck-naked down Mt. Hood.

At 23, I got married. God knows how or why Angie chose me, but there we were in Reno, Nevada, December 6, 1996, tying the knot. We made it quite a few years before everything exploded in our faces, sending me and my stain of perpetual self-blame into an abyss of drinking and recklessness which nearly claimed my life. When I finally surfaced, she was still there, wrestling her own demons, and we forged ahead. To channel a thought of Hemingway’s, some marriages break and others heal and become stronger at the broken places. Our marriage sure as hell did.

At 30, I decided to become a journalist—having kept volumes of cribbed notes, stories and letters for decades—and so began the longest period of my adult life where I didn’t drive for a living. I convinced Willamette Week to pay me a freelance wage, lived off credit cards, and published a volume of well-received work for which the paper paid me a pittance under the guise of my “inexperience.” I finally tired of the editorial-policy of bashing my Washington County roots, called out the powers-that-be for their overt geographic-snobbery and class bigotry, and in the ensuing maelstrom, quit with whatever passes for my integrity still intact.

At 32, my son Ferguson came into the world. For the first time since I ran headlong into that wall, the world gleamed without so much as a shadow. In the terror of my new responsibility, I took a full-time job truck-driving by night—go figure—and attended college full-time by day. I rarely slept and lived on a diet of coffee and booze, the former to keep me awake; the latter to drown the seething specter of my past and the awesome responsibility of raising a child without subjecting him to it’s influence.

At 34, my daughter Adaira came into the world, as sweet and perfect a person as I could imagine. With my son now ambulatory, alert and exhibiting an intelligence beyond his years, and a daughter who would look to me as the model of what a man should be, I took a long hard look at who I’d become, quit drinking for 18 months, and voluntarily went to counselor for the first time in my life.

At 35, I graduated in spring-term from PSU with a BA in Communication Studies, just as the economy took a massive plunge and the newspaper business—still reeling from the effects of the internet—fell into the slow death spiral where it strangles to this day. After a heartrendingly bleak summer of job-hunting, I started Grad School. Tired of hearing my kids ask for attention while I studied a largely unmarketable discipline, I dropped out, held on to my driving job, and for the first time in years, I rested deeply. Hell, I graduated from college and my high school math teacher said I’d be lucky to dig ditches. Suck it, pal!

At 38, I became a U.S. Citizen, largely due to the endless and terrifyingly-quoted mewling of Sarah Palin—especially in regard to her immigration ideas. More importantly, I’d paid to have the Oregon State Tree inked on my arm several years earlier, so it seemed high time to have my legal status follow my heart. Then Homeland Security lost my paperwork. For a while, the very real possibility of deportation loomed. Then, Earl Blumenauer—yes, the bow-tied politician—intervened on my behalf, and I swore my allegiance to my country and helped vote him back into office.

And here I am, at 40, an American with too much scar tissue, driving a truck, with a wife, two kids, a house, a college education and the finest collection of friends a guy could ask for. Oh, and this bitchin’ blog.

So what have I learned?

I’ve learned how much I have to learn, and how hackneyed that sounds. I have blown countless opportunities, insulted many who didn’t have it coming, wallowed in selfish indulgences, and manipulated those who cared for me. And that’s just the start.

I’ve also stood up against bullies and tyrants, worked tirelessly for my family, laughed like a hyena at my own misfortunes, and let one hell of a lot of things run off my broad back.

I probably don’t know shit, but if am to hazard a few observations:

We are not rarities. In fact, most people are remarkably alike: We blame ourselves for things we can’t control, and we take no responsibility for that which is clearly our fault.

We live in fear of our own potential and will gleefully shoot ourselves in the foot rather than take a step forward into the unknown.

We’re quick to see the bad in a thing, and slow to see it’s good. What we notice first depends on our attitude.

We’re quick to disregard wisdom when surprised by the source. For instance, Media Pundit Adam Corolla, reminds us to “Always have a ‘Fuck You’ chambered and ready. Life is too short to deal with dickheads.” That’s as wise as many of the utterances of so-called learned men.

We all have hopes and dreams. Falling short is inevitable. Quitting is a choice.

We can never have too many good friends, which are a rarity, despite being easy to spot because they tend to offer help before you can ask for it.

We take too much for granted—like the fact we’re not six-feet under. Really, that’s all anyone needs to remember. “Life,” as Burroughs said, “is a killer.”

So get out there and live it like you stole it!

I’m just getting started.

Methical Communication

Unless you’re going fishing, there is something wholly unnatural about one’s alarm bleating before the sun is up. For a Pacific Northwest produce-trucker, when the summer bounty bursts from the verdant valleys and fertile foothills, the wee-hour wake-up is an all-too common occurrence.

One such Thursday in June 2006, I am summoned from sleep by the caterwauling clock at a crisp 1:00 am. This does not surprise me, even though I’m fairly confident I laid down not four hours prior. My pregnant wife is still awake though, and even that takes several minutes to register as I stagger woodenly about the house, trying to locate myself in time and space, hoping to find my Carhartt pants and work-shirt in the process.

“You got clothes in the dryer,” she calls from the kitchen, her words mingling with the glorious scent of fresh coffee. “And don’t forget your books.”

“Fuck the dryer,” I mutter, realizing I’m still wearing yesterday’s clothing. To hell with it, though. It’s finals week: Five days of forced-insomnia punctuated by extemporized exams and turgid term papers. And through it all, that nagging 50 hour week of trucking. Since Sunday, I’ve enjoyed perhaps 12 hours of bed-sleep, a few stolen naps—some unintentional—and a few less showers than I’d like. My brain is melange of social-science theories and delivery times—neither of which I can keep straight. And this last exam is assuredly an essay, and will likely require an actual interpretation of the salient points, rather than my usual regurgitation of the required readings… Dirty pants are the least of problems.

Come on,” urges my wife, putting a steaming travel-mug in my hand. “You can fuck the dryer later. Last run and you’re off for the weekend. One more exam and you’re done with your sophomore year.”

I offer a half-ass grin and don’t bother reminding her that the sophomore-designation means nothing to a 33-year old man. Instead, I kiss her good bye, brush my fingertips over the growing lump that will be my daughter, grab my backpack and point my clapped-out ’87 Corolla down the road to work. 

Half an hour later, I arrive at one of the countless warehouses in South Portland, where my loaded semi awaits, reefer howling against the warm night. I park nearby, grab my now-empty coffee-cup, a spare hoodie, and my large, industrial metal clipboard. I briefly consider taking my entire backpack before settling on the 400-plus page “Ethical Issues in Interpersonal Communication” which I load into my clipboard’s hinged storage compartment, along with the waybills I find on the tractor’s driver-seat. 

After all, I have several stops in Salem, Albany, and Woodburn, OR, and none are particularly safe places at this foul hour. There’s no sense in enticing any light-fingered night-walkers by leaving a backpack in my cab. And more to the point, I’ll assuredly get hung-up somewhere waiting for a load to be received, a perfect opportunity to whip-out my text and skull-fuck myself full of Ethical Communication tenets.

I give the tires a precursory kick, check the slack-adjusters on my trailer brakes, fire-up that Freightliner and get rolling.

First stop is around 3 a.m., at a rundown warehouse along the tracks in South Salem. It’s a trash-strewn kind of place where the streetlights rarely work, the roads haven’t been paved in 30 years, and the few inhabited houses nearby feature omnipresent television sets and front yards full of vehicles in various states of disrepair.

I have keys to the building, and as I back my 48′ trailer up to the crumbling dock, I’m planning on making this a quick stop. Thoughts of the big Chevron Station on Commercial Street cross my mind. Pour myself a scalding cup of coffee, nuke a burrito and enjoy a little harmless flirting with the smart-ass blonde girl who cashiers there… Maybe sit in the well-lit parking lot and have a quick browse over Chapter One before heading toward my 5 a.m. appointment in Albany…

I shut the tractor down, grab my hefty clipboard  and hop out of the cab, quickly flipping my reefer motor off and standing in the silence for a few minutes, taking in my surroundings—much as I would anywhere dark, secluded, and so utterly beyond luck. I’ve delivered here hundreds of times and tonight it’s the same old scene: A distant train-horn carries through the starry sky, blue light flickers behind the always-drawn curtains in the shack across the street, and the faint aroma of fresh-amphetamine hangs in the air; softly sulfurous in the nose and close enough to leave an odd sensation on the back of the tongue that brings cat piss to mind. 

Yep, business as usual, and not two miles from The Oregon State Capitol Building. 

But something isn’t sitting right, and I pause, before hearing the dog barking. There it is, I think, recalling that the shit-shack over the road usually features a good-sized brick-red pit-bull who prowls among the derelict Chevy pickups and kiddie-toys littering front yard. But the barking is getting louder, and I register an instant of paws scrabbling on gravel before the pit’ bursts into view, charging toward me like it’s got ripe serrano up it’s ass, teeth barred in a blind fury, raving and snarling like I just stole his owner’s last box of cold-medicine.

It leaps directly at my mid-section, and I am instantly wide-awake and completely aware of which of my tender body-parts the dog is planning on biting. I’m totally on instinct as I spin on my left foot, pivot my hips and favored-flesh away, and I bring the book-laden steel-clipboard down on Fido’s skull with all the adrenaline-fueled strength my 220-pound body can muster.

Fido howls in pain and hits the ground chin-first, which I notice from the corner of my eye as I cover the 50-odd feet to the dock in about four huge steps, literally vaulting up the dock to safety as the dick-biting dog leaps around below, emitting a hellish guttural warbling, completely unafraid of my fiercest commands to “GO THE FUCK HOME!”

I catch my breath and realize the thing is probably too damn injured or overweight to leap up onto the dock, and mercifully too stupid to use the stairs at the far end of the loading platform. Not really sure what else to do, I cautiously unlock the dock-door, open my trailer and begin pulling off the palletized potatoes I’m here to deliver. Erstwhile, tweeker-dog roars and growls all manner of murderous threats from beneath my trailer.

Needless to say, things at the meth-shack remain as serene as ever. 

Having completed my delivery, I lock up, stash my pallet-jack in the trailer, and consider my options for returning to the cab. Perhaps I could climb up on the trailer-roof and try a Dukes of Hazzard move through the tractor window? How about some sort of Tom-and-Jerry idea where I divert the dog with a snack? Realizing I lack a string of sausages, and that my tractor’s window is rolled up, I liberate a stout oak plank from a stack of empty pallets, and with my clipboard as a shield, I slip around the other side of my trailer and down the dock-stairs. 

Fido immediately comes at me again, gurgling in his rage, though this time going for the cuff of my pants. I spin away at the last second and catch him full-force with the plank across the rippling muscle of his haunch, which splits open like a blown-retread. He howls and drops to the ground, and I deliver a sickening steel-toe to his ribs before he rights himself and goes bleeding and shrieking into the night.

I head directly toward the house, and before I’m halfway across the yard, a skinny white-guy of indeterminate meth-age, wearing sweatpants and a filthy wife-beater opens the door and delivers his toughest-sounding, “What the fuck’s goin’ on out here?!”

“You better get a hold of your fucking dog!” I roar, getting right up in his waxy face with the scrap-wood shillelagh. “Because the next time I deliver here, I’m going to shoot him dead.”

To my surprise he tries to bluff, “Wonder what the cops would think about a gun in a semi-truck?”

“Shut the fuck up!” I snap, in no mood to debate the inaccuracy of the commonly-held belief that one can’t carry weapons in a commercial vehicle. “Manufacture and Distribution of Methamphetamine is what you oughta consider! And who are the cops going to believe? The gainfully employed truck driver and college student, or the unemployed scumbag meth-cook?”

He sways a little as he stands, eyes bouncing like pin-balls as he tries to focus on a point roughly two feet above my shoulder. “Go back in your fucking house.” I tell tell him, tossing the stick aside and heading for the tractor. He’s clearly no kind of threat. And true to form, neither dude or the dog follows me, nor do I ever see either of them again, though I carry a .357 for years thereafter.

The remainder of the run goes much as I’d anticipated; coffee, burrito, sassy-cashier, and several impromptu study-sessions included. I arrive Friday at 9:00 a.m. for my exam after a solid three hours of sleep, my cranium leaking varied and largely-useless facts. Hell, I think, taking my customary seat in the back of the room, I’ve even managed to change my pants.

In walks Dr. Kettlemeier, a plump, bespectacled professor with the commensurate wild-hair and comfortably disheveled garb of tenured academia. “Please take your seats and clear your desks of everything but a pen and a Blue Exam Book,” he begins, the shuffle of book-bags and rustle of papers loud against the tense silence of the exam room. 

“Obviously, the test will be in essay format,” he continues, his dry-erase marker squeaking-out an illegible blur across the white-board at the front of the room. “Please take a few minutes and describe a communication event from your personal life, and interpreting the appropriate concepts from our readings and lectures—in your own words—outline where you feel your behavior exhibited effective and ethical communication. If needed, please describe where and how you feel you might have room for improvement…”

I smile, and put my pen to the page. 

I got this.

Three Years Ago Today

Photo By Cori Avery

It’s September 23, 2010, a quiet, starry mountain-night on U.S. 26, a winding two-lane transportation arterial carved through the volcanic backbone of the Northern Oregon Cascade Range. For Dusty Lee Mings, a 54 year-old truck driver out of Portland, OR, it’s business as usual; an overnight run between the faceless slab-built warehouses of North Portland and the sun-soaked recreation-destinations of Sisters, Bend, and Sunriver. Like most of the workaday transport drivers who navigate the treacherous grades of U.S. 26, Dusty is riding out the last easy weather of autumn before the alpine winter donkey-kicks the mountains and every run is a waking white-knuckle nightmare of blinding blizzards, wind-burnished ice, tire-chains and plunging temperatures.

But tonight, it’s a flawless scene in the Cascades. A few errant clouds strafe the full moon, sending shadows dancing among the old-growth firs and over the bare pavement. Mt. Hood’s still-snowy summit looms like a huge white sentinel, backlit by a swath of innumerable stars. Deer and coyote flit through the dense undergrowth, and there probably isn’t another vehicle for 30 miles.

Sometime around 2 a.m., Dusty’s semi crests 3,900′ Wapinitia Pass and he begins his descent into the high, dry range lands of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Like many places in the cattle-centric American West, it’s open range country, a fact he undoubtedly knows as well as any U.S. 26 trucker. Though still a winding, precipitous mountain highway with all the associated dangers, now there’s the added threat of an occasional 2-ton heifer browsing among the arrow-straight Ponderosa trunks—and there’s nary a fence to stop them meandering into the road.

Like all commercial drivers, Dusty has 14 hours of legal-time to complete his run, and only 11 of those hours are allotted to driving. He’s just spent the better part of an hour geared-down, his semi straining to haul a full-load of refrigerated meat up Oregon’s tallest mountain, and like any experienced driver on a clear, deserted highway, he’s going to make up some lost time. Finished with the climb at last, he lays into the fuel, and hammers down into the hill as he has so many times before, his Freightliner’s engine-brake shattering the silence of the curves, his overdrive howling through the straights…

And then the unthinkable happens. Just past the Bear Springs Cut-off, a full-grown cow steps into his path. Nobody knows what happens in those last seconds. Does he scream? Does he mutter the same string of profanities any driver might as the inevitable sound of breaking metal and screeching tires assault the night? Does he swerve, downshift, or just freeze up?

Actually, it doesn’t fucking matter what he did.

What is all-too well known is that his semi connects with the cow at a solid 60 mph, his tractor’s steer-tires hit the gravel shoulder, followed by the unstoppable mass of his trailer, and he plows off the highway into the trees, is pinned in the wreckage, and burns to death.

What follows is the usual response from the brisk, efficient and all-too-accustomed emergency personnel who work this deadly section of U.S. 26. The highway is shut down for hours, despite there being nothing anyone can do. The fire is extinguished, an investigation proceeds, and a tow-truck arrives.

Hours later, the flares burn out and the  road reopens. Those stuck in the ensuing traffic jam head home to friends and family. Eventually, at some point in the following period of grief, a homegrown highway headstone appears in that charred section of the woods, another of the many that flank U.S. 26.

I know this all too well. I drive my semi past that lone cross every night I work, though to be honest, I hardly knew the man it memorializes. In 2010, I usually ran between Portland and Port Angeles, WA. However, I would occasionally cover the Central Oregon run—the one I now call my own—and as a grocery hauler, I would see him at the various stores where we delivered our freight. As a rule, he kept on the hop, never letting the moss grow under his tires. Polite, and possessed of that timelessly-tired yet good-natured working-class outlook, he brought his gruff, laconic humor onto the dreariest of docks, and that’s saying something, since the average grocery store at 4 a.m. is no kind of good time.

Mostly, I know him because I know U.S. 26: I gear-down where he geared down and chain-up where he chained-up. I fuel in the same grimy truck-stops and eat in the same greasy diners. Slip through the same curves and strain through the same storms. I know the same stunning scenery, dodge the same weigh stations and speed traps, and probably think many of the same thoughts every sleep-deprived driver thinks on a lonely road in the wee hours when there’s nothing but dash-lights and demons and black miles ahead.

Like he probably did, I worry about hitting a cow, running off the road and leaving my family fatherless.

In 2010, workplace accidents cost 4,690 people their lives in America alone, with transportation and material-handling workers accounting for the lion’s share. In lay-terms, that means truck drivers and warehousemen.

One of those people was named Dusty Lee Mings, and he left a wife and family behind and touched a lot of lives. In fact, if you live in Oregon, he very likely delivered your food, probably while you slept. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that you ate that same food while you watched “Ice Road Truckers,” or any of the other diesel-dramas that spew from the television under the guise of reality.

The working class deserves better, and Dusty Lee Mings deserves more than this paltry remembrance and a lot more than a scrap-wood cross ditch-side at mile-marker 72.

At the very least, he deserves that you know his name:

Dusty Lee Mings

March 24, 1956 ~ September 23, 2010

Shiny side up, Driver!