I drive a truck, a monster tractor pulling a flatbed with a section of a modular home sitting tall and wide atop it. Wherever I drive I am preceded by a vehicle with flashing orange lights and a “WIDE LOAD” sign. Similar flashy vehicles follow me, warning everyone that I’m here and that I’m BIG!
One morning I joined four other drivers to carry several large buildings from our warehouse lot near Salem to a buyer north of Seattle. Most of I-5 northbound is clean and clear. The road is straight and the overpasses tall enough so that I don’t need to duck my head as I drive under. Though the traffic is usually heavy, we travel early and late to reduce the trauma we cause for other drivers.
However, the freeways around Seattle are more challenging. The underpasses and overpasses are old, low, and curvy – hard to get through when you’re carrying a house on your trailer. Our destination required a trip through Seattle and beyond. Not at rush hour, but early, when we could close down several lanes without making too many enemies. Unfortunately, on this trip our trailers were too tall for one of the bridges, so we were going to have to use a side road that was longer, but safer. No driver wants to drive a house into an overpass.
As I began to drive out of our lot, one of the pillows deflated. You know, the huge air-filled pillows we place beneath the buildings to assure they have a nice soft ride on the trailer. The pillows have all got to be fully inflated, so I had to wait while the crew fixed my flat. By the time my team got on the road we were at least 30-minutes behind the rest of the trucks.
When I arrived a few miles south of the ‘too-short’ overpass in Seattle, I was met by a local Pilot who had been assigned to me by the Washington Department of Transportation. His job was to get me off the freeway and through the twists and turns of the ‘safer route’. The Pilot greeted me, looked over my load, made a few measurements, and said. “Cliff, if you’re willing to follow my directions exactly, to the very inch, I’ll take you on I-5 instead of going the long route.”
I swallowed hard, but quickly agreed. I’d worked with him before and knew I could trust him. And, he knew me well enough to know I would follow his lead. Exactly. But, for this to work, I would have to give him total control of my load.
“Do exactly as I say,” the Pilot told me again. “Exactly. Are you okay with that?”
Traffic was light when we came to the bridge, and the Pilot had all the lanes shut down so we could inch through together. I knew my load was too tall, but the Pilot was sure that in some places the overpass was actually higher than the sign said. “You can drive through,” he said, “without scraping the top off your load. Just follow my directions.”
I opened my window, and even though the cab was now filled with cold air, my hands grew clammy and I started sweating. The grey concrete of the overpass seemed to be in the cab beside me.
“We can do this,” the Pilot said. “Put your left front tire on the center line.” “Hold your speed at 2 miles an hour. First gear.” “Now four inches left.” “Slowly shift your left front wheel to the center line.” “You’re doing fine.” “Now, three inches further right.” “We’re almost through.” “Left tire on the line.” “Slowly move so your right front wheel is five inches right of the line.”
“Okay, you’re through. Pull off to the right and let’s get the traffic running again.”
I about fainted with exhaustion.
All five of our company drivers had arranged to park at the weigh station till we could move on without hampering traffic. When the Pilot and I pulled in, we were the only oversized load there. I figured that the other guys must have continued on ahead without me, but about 15 minutes later all four of their trucks pulled in beside me.
“How did you get here before us?”
I pointed to my Pilot and smiled. “My Pilot knew the way. It was easy. All I had to do was follow.”