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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Travels with an Old Bedbug: On the Road with Ross Mackie

canadiantruckers.com
Nice story of a road trip across Canada in the early 2000’s. Thanks to Harry Rudolfs!
2/16/2004
By Harry Rudolfs
I jumped at the chance to ride across most of Canada with Ross Mackie. Pioneer trucker is too narrow a term for him. The straw-haired patriarch of Mackie Moving Systems of Oshawa, Ont. has a long list of industry firsts: first Canadian carrier to run into Mexico (seven years ahead of NAFTA); first Canadian moving company to offer air ride trailers; first in the country with an enclosed car carrier. As well, in 1987, his firm was chosen by General Motors to set up a logistics network that eventually spanned thirteen plants in six countries on two continents.
But most of all, Ross is a good driving companion and an expert yarn-spinner. His crackling, dry wit cuts like a chain saw. His blue eyes sparkle when he talks about the wild old days of trucking. This is worth more than a free ride to Vancouver for me; the man is a driving history book.
At 68 years of age, the diminutive CEO can still hop around the upper deck of a car carrier. He keeps his AZ licence active and takes the occasional road trip to remind himself why he’s in business. A few month’s ago he hauled Frederick Eaton’s Bentley back from Florida teamed with his 23 year old grandson Shawn--the fifth generation of trucking Mackie.
Ross hasn’t driven to Vancouver in a dozen years. But his reasons for making this trip run deeper: he wants to recreate a journey he took with his grandpa and father, just over fifty years ago.
In the early summer of 1951, two trucks left Charlie Mackie’s Oshawa barn/warehouse loaded with furniture for Calgary and Vancouver. Grandpa Charlie and a hired man, Lloyd Simcock, drove a three-ton Chev straight truck with a 20 foot box. Ross and his father Merle followed in a Chevrolet tractor pulling the pride of the Mackie fleet--a 28- foot Trailmobile trailer.
This was a liminal time in trucking history. Extra-provincial trucking was still in its infancy. Some general freight was moving over the road, and a few bedbugs (furniture haulers) were making some long distance forays across the country. But for the most part, almost everything being shipped across western Canada, including household furniture, was moving by rail.
After unloading the first truck in Calgary, Grandpa Charlie and Lloyd turned for home, while Ross and his father continued to Vancouver. Ross remembers a harrowing ride through the Rockies. Most of the passes were single lane with treacherous switchbacks. If you met a truck coming the other way, one of you had to back up to a "cutout"--a wider section of road where the two vehicles could squeeze by each other. The two chugged through the towns of Creston, Trail and Rossland. Their little truck with its 248 cu. inch gasoline engine was badly underpowered and struggled on every grade.
Merle lost the brakes descending Anarchist Peak into Osoyoos. The drums over-heated and the truck rolled halfway through town before he could get it stopped. A sweat-soaked father turned to his son. "When we get to Vancouver, let’s sell the truck and take the train back."
Fortunately, as it turns out, no one in Vancouver wanted to buy the little tractor. After making their delivery, they found another load of furniture going back to Ontario. The rest, as they say, is trucking history. "We were the Flintstones," says Ross with a wink. "But we done all right."

Tuesday May 6


We’d planned to leave Mackie’s Oshawa terminal by noon, but at 2:00 pm Ross is still juggling a multitude of tasks. He stops to talk to the plant electrician--then answers the wall phone in the dispatch office. On his way to check on a trailer in the paint bay, he confers with a long-time driver fueling at the pumps.
It’s taken weeks to put this trip together. Bob Fraser, a 36 year company veteran on medical leave, has lent us his 2000 Peterbilt. It’s a 379 model with only 460,000 kms. Ross has had the unit hurriedly certified and quarter-plated. With almost perfect timing, a load of classic and antique cars for British Columbia materialized in the warehouse just last week.
And what delicious cargo it is. I watch a crew from the warehouse strap a 1963 Corvette to the enclosed car carrier’s upper deck. Next, they roll in a 1937 Plymouth, and a 55 Chevy bound for Thunder Bay. A hacked-up dirt bike rounds out the load.
The last thing Ross and I have to do in Oshawa is handbomb a dozen cases of Boot Brushes into the trailer. The aluminum-backed brushes are a personal crusade for Ross Mackie--he’s a partner with the inventor, Steve Shermeto, also a company driver. The brushes are bolted upside down to a truck’s steps and are a popular item with owner operators.
What started as simple idea on a dusty trip to Mexico has turned into a 12 year business venture for the two men, and spawned a couple of copy cat imitators. "We’ve sold over 500,000," says Ross, shutting the side door of the trailer. "Our biggest customer is Paccar." And I get the feeling he wants to sell a few more on the way to Vancouver.
Clutching two logbooks, Ross climbs into the cab and settles behind the wheel of the Peterbilt. At 4:30 pm, unbelievably it seems, we’re rolling towards Vancouver.
It matters little that Thickson Road is choked with homebound commuter traffic. The start of any road trip is fueled by adrenaline and nervous expectation. The Cat engine pulls us gently over the over the hillocks of Durham County. The afternoon sun is shining divinely over the pastoral landscape.
But the gravitational pull of the GTA is strong. Ross slides to the shoulder just south of Highway 12 so he can make two last phone calls. The first one is to his girlfriend Colleen in Ajax--to explain, again, why he is going to Vancouver and when he’ll be back. "I love you, too," he sings. The second call is to a "movie guy" who’s awaiting delivery of a couple of Hummer trucks at a film shoot in Toronto. "I’ve worked with this guy for years," says Ross. "I want to keep him happy."
Some truckers will tell you that they drive for the sunsets. And rounding the rim of Lake Simcoe we’re in for a great one. The cumulous clouds on the horizon burst into spectacular violet and crimson blossoms. Very little traffic now--only the occasional gambler on the way to an evening at Casino Rama, or a gravel hauler making a last run back to the pit.
At the narrows between Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching we pass a Tim Horton’s and the skeleton of a fish weir that was used by Natives for thousands of years. The sticks from the ancient crib are still visible through the water. About 400 years ago, French explorer Samuel de Champlain spent a weekend in Orillia. We slow down only enough to take the ramp for Highway 11.
This is Yonge Street, the longest street in the world, and the extension of an old Indian trail that was blazed by Governor Simcoe’s Queen’s Own Rangers over two centuries ago. The pink granite rock faces of are welcoming but too-familiar: Muskoka is southern Ontario’s cottage playground. We roll past the exits for Gravenhurst and Bracebridge. Near Huntsville, Ross spots a Swiss Chalet and doubles back.
There is still some light, so he pulls on coveralls and grabs a flashlight. "I’m worried about that Corvette sitting close to the roof," he says climbing inside the trailer. "If things come loose, they do it within the first 100 miles."
We share the dining room with two local families dressed in matching pastel tracksuits. They sing, "Happy Birthday" to one of the kids, and hardly notice us as we devour our quarter chickens. We’re gone in minutes, anyway, leaving a pile of bones and Loonies for a tip.
Now it’s my turn to drive. The 13 speed Eaton Yale meshes smoothly and the 425 horsepower Cat is hardly challenged by the hills of the Amalguin Highlands. Our payload is only 10,000 lbs.
But I’m immediately having problems with the headlights. These are aftermarket pods mounted on the fender for that "classic" look, but they’re not set up right. One eye shines into the bush and the other is dim as a 40 watt bulb.
The inspection station at North Bay is closed. North of the city, wisps of fog rub along the road and I’m glad we’re taking the northern route rather than Hwy 17. The southern highway hugs the north channel of Lake Huron and is probably fog-bound tonight.
At 90 kph, I can just make out the scarred centre line and shoulder, but the fog worsens and I have to back off the throttle again. I’m straining to keep between the lines, and relieved when the lights of New Liskeard come into sight and Ross suggests we get a motel for the night.
It’s midnight when I pull in beside a long line of trucks. They resemble sleeping dragons, dozens of them snoring on both sides of the road. There are no humans in sight--the drivers are hunkered down in the cabs or in the motel rooms--except Ross, who’s darting across the highway from motel to motel, trying to find the best rate.
Ross beckons from across the road. He’s found a place that will give him a senior rate. Stepping into the lobby, I’m struck by a powerful sense of dislocation and other-wordliness. The pop machine hums in a pool of glaring fluorescence. The young woman behind the desk acts detached and surreal. The scene is empty and metallic--this is truck driving existentialism. Country singer Dwight Yoakam explains it better: "I’m a thousand miles from nowhere / Time don’t matter to me / ‘Cause I’m a thousand miles from nowhere / And there’s no place I want to be..."
Otherwise, it’s not a bad room. We’re asleep in seconds. The next thing I hear is the 6 am wake up buzzer.

Wednesday May 7


A breakfast of links sausages and poached eggs under our belts, we’re rolling with the first streaks of dawn.
The fog lifts in an hour to reveal Northern Ontario. Here, along the roadside, the disparity between north and south in this province is obvious and profound. We pass shanties and cobbled dwellings where souls scratch out a meager living on the harsh shell of the Canadian Shield, where the lakes stay frozen well into May. Most of us southerners couldn’t deal with this type of isolation and the great distances involved. We’re uncomfortable without a Loblaws or Sobeys close by.
"I’m hoping to get the Chev delivered in Thunder Bay tonight. I’ll phone the customer later," Ross announces.
He gears down in Cochrane and pulls into the Husky parking lot. This will be Ross’ first attempt to sell Boot Brushes.
The owner of the truck stop is Mariel Vachon, a stocky man with a short beard who is holding a baby. He tells Ross that he already has an accessories supplier but he knows about Boot Brushes. Mariel owns a small trucking company as well, Vachon Trucking, and has the brushes mounted on the steps of his six Kenworths. "I’ll take 10 Boot Brushes," he says, "Six black, four red."
Mariel points out his trucks parked across the road. He runs them heavy--with 500 Cats under their hoods--hauling B-trains from saw mills fully loaded with wood chips, maxing them out at 63,500 kgs--the legal limit.
He’s not enthusiastic about the state of trucking these days, though. "I’m from the old school," he says. "I used to have 15 trucks but things are changing too fast for me. Insurance has tripled in the last year. I’ve got six trucks now and eight drivers. And I’m thinking of getting out of the business."
But he’s proud of his truck stop, a place he bought six years ago. "I’ve always been a truck driver but this crossed my path so I bought it." Mariel shows me the remodeling he’s done: new showers and the stairs are plate stainless steel--the kind of embossed star-pattern you find on fuel tank steps. Ross, meanwhile, is happily writing a receipt for the Boot Brushes on a sheet of paper.
My turn at the wheel. Northern trucking is making me a friendlier driver. Up here, every trucker waves and expects one in return. The process makes you aware of the name on each truck and gives you a brief glimpse at the driver, but my arm tires soon enough. The oncoming trucks are predominantly Manitoulins, TransX and Bisons from Winnipeg, Erbs and H&R Transport, and a few Yankes. Even the odd Quebec carrier hauling plywood or lumber. Obviously some freight, frozen meat for the most part, is still moving east-west in Canada.
So far, we’ve counted two dead moose and a small squished bear. Almost all the local haulers, chip wagons and logging trucks, sport impressive moose catchers mounted on the noses of their rigs. $3,500 seems expensive for an aluminum grille, but it’s the cost of doing business in the north country. One large animal strike can be career-ending, or write off a $160,000 truck.
Ross shows me a place where a grader pulled him out in 1951. That was when he was driving a White 3000 series with a rounded nose. "The windshield tended to cave in," he says. "So I made up two lengths of 2X4s that fit between the windshield and the back of the cab." He also tells me that he also installed a propane lighter on the floor that would backfire and leave his skin blackened with soot.
"This where I nearly froze to death," Ross says matter-of-factly. Here, the road here is rough in spots, bounded by scrub brush and a pencil-thin shoulder. Kilometres float by without any sign of a homestead or a fenced lot.
"This part of the highway is called, 'The Stretch,'" he says, shifting into storytelling mode. "It's 137 miles with nothing in between. One winter night, I stopped for a coffee in Hearst, just back there a piece. Some older drivers told me, ‘Now look, you better think twice about heading out tonight’. But I wanted to get to Vancouver and when you’re young you figure you can do anything.
"It was probably about 30 below F. The gearshift in that White was real sloppy, but it got so cold that it wouldn’t shift properly. Then my steering box froze up on me so I couldn’t steer. I was stopped on the shoulder and the wind was just howling. By then my truck had shut off, too. I wrapped myself in furniture pads trying to keep warm and thought for sure I was going to freeze to death.
"Eventually, a snowplow come along with two guys in it. They took me inside their truck and warmed me up a bit. Then they gave me a lecture and told me I should have known better. Today when I hear some young guy complaining about his air ride seat and his lower lumbar, I think you poor bugger. Don’t you have it tough!"
A flat tire in Kapuskasing comes as a bit of a surprise. Kicking the tires, I find a bolt that has gone through the casing. Luckily there’s a tire shop in town a few kilometres behind us. Pulling under the canopy we’re greeted by a balding service manager with a strong French-Ontario accent--and superb service. The young man who patches the tire is eager to go to lunch and has us fixed up in ten minutes.
The repair job only $50 and we’re conscious of how much a service call would have cost on the highway ($300). It also gives Ross a chance to call the customer in Thunder Bay and tell him we’ll be arriving around suppertime.
Ross also has a friend in Thunder Bay who he knows from the old trucking days. Rudy Croissandt is 89 now and long-since retired. His claim to posterity might be that he drove Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s headquarter bus in North Africa during World War II. Ross can’t get Rudy on the phone but he does contact his son Deiter. He tells us his father usually can’t hear the phone, but Rudy is waiting for our visit.
Past Nipigon, where Hwy 11 and 17 join, there’s too much truck traffic to wave at every driver. Almost at random, Ross takes an exit off the TransCanada that lands us into a residential area of Thunder Bay. We pull up beside a soccer field. The owner of a diner lets us use the phone in her restaurant.
We buy fried chicken to go, but it’s almost too greasy to eat. There’s no time, anyway. The young couple who bought the 55 Chev arrives to escort us to their house. Good thing, it’s a dead end street and difficult to back down. But the vista is exceptional, overlooking Lake Superior and the harbour.
The Chev starts easily and backs off the hoist. We’re secure again in half an hour. The couple insists on giving us an escort to Rudy’s house. Good thing, again, because Rudy lives on a crescent behind an old shopping mall. Ross tries not to knock down too many tree branches as we pull around the street.
The two men hug and walk off arm in arm as soon as Ross steps out of the cab. It’s been 20 years since they’ve seen each other.
Rudy is gaunt but well-preserved. Inside his bungalow, he keeps the shades drawn and the television turned on loud. His wife died a few years ago and his main companion, these days, is a furry tabby cat who is stretched on the couch.
"I have a bottle of whiskey," he says to Ross.
"Rudy, I quit drinking 26 years ago."
Instead, the two pour over an old photo album that Ross has brought along. He has pictures of another legendary bedbug, Highway Hank Stroud, who drove a Leyland Beaver for a gypsy trucker in Hamilton. Another photo shows a 32 foot trailer that Ross laid on its side 40 years ago near West Hawk Lake, Manitoba.
Rudy has stacks of photo albums, as well. Old black and whites show him as a young man beside his old Leyland Comet in 1953. A page from a German newspaper shows Rudy with Rommel, himself, and the headquarters bus in the foreground.
Rudy also has a newspaper clipping of the time he escaped along with 5 other German prisoners in 1943. After being captured in North Africa, he was sent to Canada and jailed as a POW in Kapuskasing. The six were quickly rounded up and recaptured.
Evidently, Rudy liked northern Ontario enough to return here with a German bride after the war. Ross met Rudy in the 50s when they both drove for North American Van Lines. They’d see each other at points along the highway. At other times, Rudy would drop into Mackie’s Oshawa warehouse to pick up a return load for Thunder Bay.
"So Rudy, are you going to come to Oshawa and visit me? I’ve got a Harley dealership, now. You can go for a ride on a motorcycle."
"I’m not going to Toronto. I'm too old," says Rudy.
"Do you think we can make Vancouver by Friday night?"
Rudy counts off the days on his fingers. "Yeah, sure. I used to do it."
The two embrace again and I snap a couple of pictures. These are the classic photos that the men want me to take: the two friends beside the cab of the Peterbilt, Rudy with a Player’s cigarette sticking out of his fist. "Hey guys," shouts Rudy as we pull away. "Keep it on the rubbers!"
I crawl in the bunk almost immediately for a nap (I had a beer at Rudy’s). Ross announces his intention to drive through the night.
Thursday May 8
The pitching of the truck wakes me somewhere past Upsala, Ont. Looking in the mirrors, I can see we’re in the middle of a caravan of seven big trucks making good time on the twisting roads of Highway 17.
Ross prefers radio silence. He never flips on the FM stations or the CB. But I’m sure this group of drivers is communicating. They’re traveling fast and fairly close together.
It is a midway ride across the north, a caterpillar with 14 eyes that weaves its way through the black night. Suddenly, Ignace, Ont., appears in a ribbon of neon truck stop lights and Ross pulls up to the pumps. The Peterbilt is thirsty.
One of the truckers in our convoy, a Quebec driver with a cabover Freightliner, stops to tell us we have no taillights. This comes as a surprise.
But you can find an apprentice mechanic at 1:00 am in Ignace. "Yepper, I know just the fella," says the diesel jockey. A baseball-capped young man appears as if by magic, and has us rolling again in ten minutes--the problem is a mis-fitted light cord. The baseball hat goes back to watching television with a few extra bucks in his pocket.
It’s my drive to Kenora and Ross takes the bunk. I’m not used to long distance driving, my legs are cramping from spending long hours in the same position. It would be great if truckers could ride a treadmill or stationary bicycle as they drive. A small survey conducted by two nurses in Cambridge, Ont. showed that 81% of truck drivers are overweight, 60% don’t get enough exercise, 34% have high blood pressure, and 31% smoke. Maybe the stationary bicycle could charge some sort of auxiliary life support equipment.
We’ve twisted the light pods so they’re working a little better how, though the headlights are still far from effective. I stop to piss outside of Dryden. It’s a dark night and very still, only the occasional roar of a semi flying by and Dopplering into the engulfing blackness.
Most teams switch roles every four or five hours. But Ross and I are changing quicker--about every three. Ross takes the wheel at Kenora and I nod off.
I startle myself away just as the lights of Winnipeg come into sight. A light rain is misting as Ross is passing a B-train.
"I’m tired," Ross says, wrist propped on top of the gearshift. "I was thinking of curling up on the floor." He steers us to the outskirts of Winnipeg and a welcoming Husky parking lot.
Ross takes the bunk while I go for take out coffee, brownies, a Winnipeg Free Press. The rain is smattering heavier as I pull out of the service centre. I promptly miss the bypass, snacking on brownies. It’s all right, I tell myself. How often do you get to see downtown Winnipeg at 5:00am?
The bakery trucks and cars are beginning to swell the streets, a pre-dawn restlessness washes across the city. I take Broadway and then Portage, passing only a block from the provincial legislature. After about 30 traffic lights, I can spot an inspection station in the distance. But the officers are busy with a customer. No flashing lights for us.
Ross awakes before dawn and we stop for breakfast at the Husky in Brandon, Man. Then, we back pedal to the local Kenworth dealer to get the lights repaired. One of the mechanics works on the headlights, while Ross pops open the side door so the rest of them can admire the antique cars.
Evidently, one of the headlights was installed upside down, and the other has a short that’s drawing three volts. The bill is $52, but Ross is happy: the dealership buys three cases of Boot Brushes and he writes up a receipt on a blank sheet of paper. Every Boot Brush sale is a small victory for him.
It’s Ross’ turn to take the wheel now. At Broadview, Saskatchewan, he shows me where he and his dad had to unhook the trailer so they could get under a low bridge. They dragged the trailer with a chain by the dolly wheels (in those days dolly wheels really were wheels).
"There was a little bit of pavement around Winnipeg, and a little bit around Regina," says Ross. "Depending on what time of the year it was, you could run into sections that were gumbo--mud up to the axles and it would be impossible to steer."
We make the customary stop at the Regina Husky. I talk to three big men, farm machinery haulers, in the parking lot. They’re enthusiastic about trucking in Saskatchewan (this was before the BSE scare). "We're busy as hell," says Harvey Barsi, tightening down a strap on his float trailer. "I’ve got all the work I can handle."
Inside, however, Ross is unable to sell any Boot Brushes to the truculent manager. "I'd be willing to buy some fuel if you’d take a case or two." he says. "No," says the manager, shaking his head.
What a comedian once said, "The Prairies give a whole new meaning to cruise control." But the land grows hillier and increasingly saline as we vector westward. A solitary red tailed hawk drifting over the valleys might be a descendent of the same one that watched the Mackie trucks roll through here 50 years ago.
Ross’ decision not to get fuel in Regina leaves the gauge dangling on E by the time we reach Medicine Hat, Alberta.
We both eat quickly. I have the last portion of farmer’s sausage and immediately regret it. Ross, meanwhile, fumbles with his cell phone--this is an ongoing ritual and takes him at least an hour per day, sometimes two or three hours. Each time he listens to his long list of messages and meticulously resaves them.
Driving the TransCanada through Alberta is a thrill for me, especially with the 110 km speed limit. We pass giant feeder calf and stockyard operations. As we climb higher, there is evidence of a serious May storm that just tore across here, a few days ago. The air is warm, but long ribs of snowdrifts are still clinging to the land.
The self-weigh inspection station before Calgary leaves us scratching our heads. "What do you do if you’re overweight," asks Ross. "Arrest yourself?"
Calgary is another one of those cities that entwines itself with the Trans Canada--there is no bypass. We park beside a Travelodge at the west end of town while Ross checks prices.
But cheaper is not better tonight. Our room is in the back alley besides a row of dumpsters. The shower leaks and water rolls across the floor into the carpet. It doesn’t matter. Ross is asleep before the lights are off.
Friday May 9
Ross illegally parks in front of a Calgary pancake house to start the day. We chow down on a small stack each, fueling for our climb into the mountains.
We share the highway with sad-eyed commuters and contractors, and the occasionally SUV with skis strapped on top. Light snow is powdering down, leaving a white coat on the fields and horses. The landscape looks like an Ian Tyson song.
Ross turns off the TransCanada at Banff and takes Highway 93 southwest where it winds through Marble Canyon and joins up with the Kootenay River. The panoramas are spectacular, with some very steep, but short declines, and equally abrupt runaway lanes that crawl up the sides of adjacent cliffs.
For eons, Plains Indians would hike weeks to "take the baths" at Radium Hot Springs, but truckers have little time for spas. Our mission is to deliver a dirt bike to a young man at the Greyhound station in Invermere. Mountain goats chewing on the ditch grass beside the road don’t even look up as we wind in and out of the village.
From Invermere, there is no quick way across the mountains to Vernon. We’re forced to back track to Golden, BC. and take Rogers Pass.
Back on the Trans Canada, Ross points to a few places, formerly mom and pop truck stops, where drivers would meet during their cross-continent peregrinations. By his accounts, some of them were wild men who engaged in dubious activities from time to time.
But they were truck drivers, pure and simple. They didn’t consider themselves outlaws, or cowboys or sailors. Their uniforms were peaked hats, bomber jackets and pressed pants. They drove hard and partied hard, romancing their way from one corner of the country to the other.
It’s late afternoon by the time we connect with the customers in Vernon. The hired hand, Bud, meets us by the side of the road and leads us into the mountains--way up into the mountains. With a little dexterity, Ross swings the trailer around in a laneway and has us facing the right way for our descent.
Neither the Plymouth nor the Corvette will start, so we push both of them off with some help from admiring teenagers. The new owner of the Corvette also owns a cheese factory and is apparently quite successful. The car is a birthday gift from his sister. He bought the Plymouth as an after thought when he was in Napoleon, Ohio looking at the Corvette.
Before we depart, Bud gives us directions to a bar in town that should serve good grub. It’s Friday afternoon at the Longhorn in Vernon and some of the locals are whooping it up (their dogs are waiting for them in pickup trucks outside). Ross drinks a near-beer (0.5%) and we have salad and fries. Some kind of provincial kino game takes place on an overhead screed every 15 minutes. People buy tickets but no one seems to win.
I'm happy to drive the next stretch into Kelowna. I picked apples there in 1980, and Stockwell Day used the Okanagan as a back drop when he rode up in a jet ski and delivered one of his first policy speeches in a wet suit, after he became Alliance leader.
But the view from the highway is dismal: heavy traffic, fast food outlets, and box stores. John Steinbeck observed that truckers travel across the land but are not part of it. Rather, ours is a world of lachrymose sunsets. The people we come in contact with are only peripheral and fleeting. I turn the Peterbilt west towards Aspen Grove and Merritt as the last rays of sunlight filter through the Rockies.
My chance to run the mountains comes at night. With so little weight, I hardly feel rushed down the grades. Only once does Ross warn me to lay off on a steep decline, otherwise the down slopes are an easy sweep. The Cat engine works harder on the up grades but never breaks a sweat.
We pull off the highway at Merritt and park in a lumber yard. It’s a little after 10:00 pm.
This is the best motel on the trip: fridge, micro, extra coffee. Ross catches up on a week of newspapers: Globe and Mails, Free Presses, Suns and Provinces. But not for long. These are well-slept nights.
Saturday May 10
When I awake Ross is in the shower. I mark up the log books and sip coffee, while Ross fires up the Pete and does the circle check.
At the wheel, Ross is torn between taking the old canyon road through the Fraser Valley or the Coquihalla toll route. Anxious to get to Vancouver, he opts for the high road. The Coke (as truckers call it) cuts two to three hours driving time and a lot of headaches. But the real driving is on the old road Ross tells me. "I could show you places," he says.

The Coquihalla Highway is one of the world’s most modern highways and very pleasant to drive. It glides from one mountain shoulder to another, and kisses a few clouds along the way. Its altitude alone makes it susceptible to sudden weather changes. But our trip is clear sailing and worth the $20 toll.
We’ve run almost 5,000 kms without seeing an open inspection station, but the one outside of Hope invites us in to get weighed. Just a formality, we’re empty now. The inspector nods to me from behind a sheet of plate glass. It’s Saturday and he probably wishes he weren’t working.
Ross wants to get the truck washed, and his wish is answered at Lickman’s Esso in Chilliwack. Within the same block, there are two truck washes and a good restaurant. Ross forks out $100 for the wash and I go for coffee.
Gloria’s Truck Stop, arguably, might be one of the best truck restaurants in Canada. The décor is simple: drivers sit around formica tables and vinyl upholstered chairs. Newspaper posters of the Vancouver Canucks are taped to the walls.
But the food is wholesome and plentiful. It has that home-cooked touch that’s missing from the chain of truck restaurants that proliferate throughout the west.
Gloria Byerlay is a small woman of Costa Rican descent. She has a faint, downy mustache on her upper lip. Fourteen years as a truck stop owner have taught her a thing or two about truck drivers.
"Truckers are easy to please," she says. "Give them good portions at a good price." That and 14 hour work days, seven days a week, she adds.
Meanwhile, Ross has found one of his drivers parked in the back row of the truck plaza. With over a hundred brokers scattered across the continent, it’s not really surprising to find one of his teams bunking in Chilliwack, but Patrick and Phyllis Skinner, out of St. John’s, Nfld., are a good catch.
They look crisp as they enter the restaurant. Patrick has shaved and put on a clean shirt. At 51 years of age he has a well-defined belly and a shock of blond hair that he sweeps back over his thinning pate. Phyllis 49, is shorter and lighter. She doesn’t drive but handles all the bookkeeping and inventory records, as well as the navigating. The two have been trucking together for more than five years.
"We left home on January 12. That was five months ago," says Phyllis pouring coffee.
"In my mind I’m always heading home," says Patrick. "Vancouver is a about as far west as you can go, so we have to be going home from here."
The couple have three children and seven grandkids. Phyllis admits that she misses being away for long periods. "But after about a week with the grandkids I’m ready to go back out again," she adds.
Washed and rinsed, our Peterbilt is ready for the last leg of our journey. Phyllis hands me a poem she’s written and I shove it in my pocket.
The car we are picking up in Abbotsford is a bronze 1967 Mustang GT heading back to Ontario. My car carrier training (I was a once a trainee at Maris Transport in Oakville) is finally getting some use. Sensitive to the age of the frame, we opt for nylon tie-down straps instead of the steel hooks.
Back on the highway, we’re very close to Vancouver, now. My son Matthew, who now lives in Vancouver, is waiting for me at New Westminster. I’m excited about spending some time in this new city and reconnecting with my 23 year old son whom I haven’t seen in half a year.
The phone rings and Ross answers it. "Grandpa, where are you?" It’s his grandson Shawn. In trucking, timing is everything. Shawn, teamed with a Greg Heasman, a Durham Region cop who also drives for Mackie, are only a kilometre behind us. They’re hauling displays for a Sony electronics show at the Vancouver Airport Ramada Inn.
Awkwardly, the two trucks have a short reunion on the shoulder just before the next off ramp. I quickly explain where we’re meeting my son.
Ten minutes later we meet Matthew at the Burnett exit. I take a picture of the bunch of them. Then we shake hands and separate. Ross and the other truck continue to the airport tooting their air horns, while my son and I walk along the bridge.
Ross will head back to Ontario in a couple of days via Emerson, Manitoba where he will cross the border and pick up a couple of cars in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I’ve got a few days of research to do in Vancouver and then I’ll fly back to Toronto on Thursday, beating Ross home by a full day.
It’s not until later that evening that I find Phyllis’ poem in my pocket. It’s a pleasant surprise. Although funny and true to the lifestyle of truckers, a thread of sadness runs through it. It seems like a good way to end the journey.

Driver’s Prayer

By Phyllis Skinner
My truck is my livelihood, I shall always want.
It maketh me to lie down in dirty truck stops.
It leadeth me beside busy highways.
It destroyeth my soul.
It leadeth me down paths of unrighteousness for survival sake.
"Yeah," though I drive through the valley of deer and moose,
I will fear no evil for thou art with me.
For my fender defends me.
My grill and my bunk, they comfort me.
They preparest a table for me at many restaurants.
They anointed my food with grease.
My blood boileth over.
Surely, payments and headaches will follow me
All the days of my life.
And I shall dwell behind a steering wheel forever and ever.


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