My friend Annabella Wood (a.k.a. Truck Driving Mama) is a woman of faith, pure and simple. She is also a consummate story teller which comes in handy, since she is a professional singer-songwriter and recording artist. Annabella had a 30 year career as a long distance truck driver. She shared a story at an interfaith service recently that gave me goosebumps. It is a reminder that we are always looked after and protected and sometimes there are no other explanations for why things happen as they do, but that unseen hands guide our steps and turns. Her guardian angels were certainly busy on the particular day she describes.
“For a number of years I hauled limestone powder down from a mine high up in the desert side of the San Bernardino Mountains. The mine was off a two lane desert mountain road. My 18 wheeler was a cab with no sleeper and two trailers called pups. The whole rig stretched about 65’ from stem to stern and when fully loaded was right on the mark at 80,000 pounds. I know that because to get the truck loaded I drove it onto a great big scale and sat in the truck while a mine worker loaded it so that they could watch the rig weight go up and stop the loading process right at max weight.
This particular day started out just like many other days. My truck had been in the shop for routine maintenance. I got to the yard, checked the lights, kicked the tires to make sure they had air, jumped in and headed off to the mine. Our shop
mechanics were good. My vehicle inspections were always pretty short when the truck had just been in the shop.
I had made this trip hundreds of times before and today felt just like the rest. The empty truck was very light and bouncy as I headed out of town into the dry foothills of the high desert in southern CA. For 45 minutes I traversed the high desert plateau until reaching Lucerne Valley where I turned right and started up the mountain roads that took me to the mine.
Soon I was at the mine and pulled up onto the scale and felt the truck shake and bobble as the powder fell into the
trailers. It was a comfortable feeling to me, something like being bounced on a beloved parent’s knee. I had been feeling it for nearly 10 years and the familiarity had its own comfort as well.
Soon the trailers were loaded, paperwork done and I was ready to roll to Los Angeles to deliver my limestone to the USG plant in Torrance where they made drywall products. Sitting in the driver’s seat I looked out the windshield at the incredible expanse of the desert mountains. I could see for probably 80 miles or more from this vantage point. There were no trees to obscure the view.
Instead there were hundreds of Joshua Trees, which are a type of slow growing cactus which eventually forms a tree shape if it has enough time. You can live in the desert your whole life with a Joshua Tree in your yard and never see it
change except for an occasional blossom which appears and then falls off. They grow imperceptibly slowly and live for thousands of years. The oldest ones grow to be about 20 feet high and their branches spread about 15 feet across.
Joshuas of that size are about 2500 years old. Most of the Joshuas I was looking at that day were much smaller and younger than that, with a few old timers interspersed. The small trees appeared as dark spots on the light desert sand. I always loved this view. I took it in one more time, released the parking brakes and headed off down the mountainside.
As always I turned on the engine brake as soon as I was rolling. The steep grade ahead required braking from the engine as well as the wheels. In the next 3 miles I was going to fall into Lucerne Valley, some 1500 feet below. This was
not a switchback road either. It was a straight road with only 2 turns between the mine and the town of Lucerne Valley. One turn was a 90 degree right hander a few hundred feet out of the mine. It was not an intersection, just a bend in the road. Before the turn you were on a pretty good but gentle slope leaving the mine. Once you finished the turn you were headed straight down the side of the mountain. A little more than 2 miles later, the mine road ended with a “T” at another two lane, Hwy 18. If you followed Hwy 18 to the right, or uphill, you would eventually end up in Big Bear, CA, a vacation town on the forested side of the mountains. I was going to turn left and continue downhill into Lucerne Valley, where another left would eventually take me out to main highways and cities.
The engine brake held me back pretty well on the gentle grade leaving the mine. As I approached the right hand curve I eased on the wheel brakes to aid in getting around the curve safely. Not much happened to the speed of the truck when I hit
the brake pedal. I pushed harder and could feel some slowing, but not nearly what I was looking for. I found myself steering around the curve faster than I should have, not only for the safety of getting around the corner, but I was hitting the main grade way too fast. I would be on fire by the time I got to the “T” at Hwy 18.
I started pushing with everything I had on the pedal. To my horror, the truck wouldn’t slow. The engine brake was still holding on, but it was not made to hold back an 80,000 pound rig on a grade like this. It was merely an assist at best. While I still had the chance I grabbed the next gear down so that the engine would be of maximum benefit as a brake. So with the engine screaming at very high RPM’s and an unresponsive brake pedal I headed down the mountain side.
My truck was a runaway and I knew it. I had a little over 2 minutes before I got to Hwy 18. I had to get it under control
NOW. I continued pushing on the brake pedal, not believing that it didn’t work. My truck had a guage on it that told how hard the driver was pushing on the brakes. Normal driving it stayed under 40. The max I had seen it at was 60. Right now I was pegging the needle at 100 and my truck wasn’t slowing down.
I had great visibility of the intersection and traffic both ways on Hwy 18, so I would know if anyone else was in danger. If there was traffic when I got there, I would swerve the truck hard and flip the rear trailer. That would stop the truck in about 2 seconds! Of course I would have to do that without also flipping the front trailer and the cab in order to escape injury. Thank God I had put my seatbelt on. That was one of my good habits.
If I swerved the truck and didn’t roll the trailer then I would have to drive offthe road, but that would be a big mess. The shoulders were soft and the truck very heavy. The side that left the pavement first would slow down instantly and the rig could flip end over end with the cab winding up under the trailers, spilling the limestone. Even if I survived the injuries of the crash, I might die of suffocation under 30 tons of limestone. That was a last resort action only to be used if absolutely necessary to save the life of another motorist.
In the meantime, I kept pushing on the brake pedal. If I pushed hard enough I could get a tiny bit of slowing. The faster the truck went, the less difference the brakes made, but every little bit helped. I was approaching the intersection with Hwy 18 fast and I took my eyes off the mining road for a moment to check for traffic on Hwy 18. There was none. I was going too fast to make the turn without rolling the trailer, but since that was the only way to stop the truck anyway, why not try and make the turn? Either way it’s a rolled trailer.
As the 100 yards turned into 100 feet from the corner I stood on the brake pedal once again and pulled up on the steering wheel with everything I could muster to push even harder on the brakes. I needed every tiny bit they would give me.
The engine was screaming, not yet to the red line on RPM’s but pretty darn close to it. I stayed standing on that pedal pulling on the steering wheel until the very last second when I turned the wheel to the left.
Everything went silent and happened in slow motion. I hung my rig on the far right side of the road, flirting with the sandy shoulder. At about 25 feet from the stop sign, I turned the wheel. In order to stand on the brakes and turn the wheel at the
same time I put both hands together on the lower part of the wheel, never releasing it from my upward pull. Centrifugal force pulled me and the truck to the right, but I kept holding her steady left. We whispered across the left lane of the mining road and then the left corner of pavement at the “T”. The rig lurched left because of the crowing of the roads as we rolled onto Hwy 18. We crossed into and over the left lane of Hwy 18 and I caught a glimpse of my trailers in the mirrors. They were swaying ominously as they crossed the lane crests and the dip in pavement at the corner of the pavement, but they were still upright. The wheel pulled to the right again as we crossed the top of the crown on Hwy 18 going into the right lane. I held on and pulled back to the left hoping to straighten the rig out in the right lane without going onto the shoulder or flipping the rig. Between the slope of the lane and centrifugal force pushing us to the right I was sure I was headed into the sand. But somehow, the truck stayed on the pavement and did not roll over.
The grade on Hwy 18 was gentler than the mining road and my engine brake and what little wheel brake remained slowed me enough that I could pull into Lucerne Valley’s General Store parking lot (which was empty) and headed the truck uphill enough to get it stopped. I pulled the parking brakes and got out of the truck, very happy to have my wobbly legs on solid ground again.
In that parking lot I found and fixed the problem with the brakes. The mechanics had left one valve on each trailer open such that the trailer brakes didn’t activate. I had only the brakes on my 2 axel tractor. I had made it down that hill with 4 of my 10 brakes. I stood there shaking for a very long time. There was no one to yell at or to blame. It was as much my fault as anyone else’s. I was supposed to check those valves, particularly after maintenance. It was all right. I was all right. No one was hurt and I had another story to tell. I was so grateful. So grateful there was no one else on the road. So grateful that I had enough brake to make that turn. So grateful that the engine held and hadn’t spun apart. So grateful to be alive and uninjured.
After calling the company and unsuccessfully trying to beg off driving any more that shift, I got in the truck to continue on into Los Angeles. As I turned the wheel to get back onto Hwy 18, I noticed the strangest thing. The steering wheel was bent… right where my two hands had held onto it going around the corner. It was bent up. How did it get bent up? Did I do that? Is there any physical way I could have enough strength to bend a truck steering wheel? They are made out of steel and are strong… very strong. The truck mechanics didn’t think it was possible I could have done that. Did I bend my truck’s steering wheel as I went around that corner, or were someone else’s hands on that wheel that day?
After hearing Annabella’s remarkable tale, I was reminded of a few occasions over the years when I witnessed near catastrophic roadway occurrences. Each time, I called on Spirit to intervene and each time it did. One took place on a roadway in Maryland in 1986 in which a driver fell asleep at the wheel, veered the car in a 360 and then it was safely guided to the side of the road.
Another was a Ryder truck that crashed through trees on a semi rural road and stopped before it could hit anyone.
And still another took place on the 4th of July a few years ago. I was on my way home from visiting friends in New York and was about to get onto the George Washington Bridge. I saw a car sideswipe an armored truck, which caused it to skid to the ride and jump up onto a railing that hovered over a 50 foot or more drop to the street below. Horrified, I held out my hand and shouted with all my might “NO!” At that moment, I watched, astonished as the truck balanced on two wheels and then landed safely on the side of the road. The three men climbed out and one reached for the gun in its holster. “Whoa”, I called out and reminded him that they were safe and he need not draw his gun. My heart was already racing, without that to step it up. At that moment, I was certain that an unseen hand had brought them from the edge of the precipice.
What each of these incidents had in common was a knowing that all was well, despite appearances at the time. I felt blessed to be present when this affirmation of grace and safety occurred. May I always remember that miracles abound.
http://youtu.be/G-QkhWhRC5o Truck Driving Mama