Garry Sowerby World Odyssey: Riding the rails - East Valley Tribune: Business

Garry Sowerby World Odyssey: Riding the rails

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Posted: Friday, December 26, 2008 1:20 pm | Updated: 9:26 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

It’s like flying your own personal jet 10 feet off the ground . . . for 2,000 miles.

I used the grab handles to pull myself up into the belly of the beast.

It had an industrial-gray, no-nonsense interior. I slipped behind the steering wheel, which was flat, like one you would find on a city bus. Floor level was higher than the roof of the Honda Accord parked along side.

Out the massive windshield, the street ahead looked impossibly narrow and when I leaned out the window to adjust the side mirror, I could see those rear frame rails. No box. Only frame rails that went on forever with four huge tires way back there holding them up.

“This is definitely a lot of machinery,” I muttered, as I turned the key and fired up the Caterpillar diesel sitting under the cab.

The rumble made me grin. But when I thought about what was ahead, a huge butterfly flapped its way through my stomach. A 2,000-mile road trip in this T-7500 GMC tilt chassis-cab was about to give me a three-day look at a world 10 feet above the pavement. That’s an altitude where everyone is working, because people that high off the road are usually pulling, pushing or carrying something heavy, big or dangerous, or all three of the above.

A contact told me about a medium-duty truck chassis-cab that had to be driven crosscountry, so I jumped at the chance. How often do you get to road test something like this? Up there, in a big rig, checking out what was happening on the nation’s highways seemed like quite an opportunity.

Before I left, temporary mudflaps were strapped to the framerails behind the back wheels. . . a pine board with what looked like two strips of doormat hanging from it.

On the road it was 2,300 revs in sixth gear and 60 mph. It was fairly quiet in there, but the ride was rough. With no weight on the back, my body was doomed to flop out the rhythm of every pavement crack and irregularity. Tuning radio channels on the move was out of the question so I implemented the “get-a-music-CD-at-everystop” rule.

First, I found Merle Haggard’s Super Hits Volume 3. Workin’ Man Blues right there on the back cover.

There’s something about country music, especially the old stuff, when you’re trapped in a vehicle for a few days en route to a destination so far away you can’t imagine ever getting there. The words to those tearjerkers get you down the road. Relate them to life experiences. Admit you were in love with that purrrrrdy young daughter up there on Wolverton Mountain. Listen to Flowers on the Wall 10 times. Play it over and over again, no one will know. A chance to figure out all those words you never understood and were too ashamed to ask anyone about.

I sat tall in the saddle for the first day, then stopped for the night in a budget motel I would rather not think about. In the morning I knew what I was going to do all day. Head east . . .

I pumped the air seat up another six inches, just enough for a height advantage over the attractive redhead in the Kenworth at a traffic light. I was surprised how many women were out there running big rigs since the cliché of a trucker usually involves a pot-bellied middleaged man with a ball cap.

I was in full driving bliss here. The panorama unfolding beyond my big-screen windshield made me realize what a lucky man I was: the view; the height; the solitude. It was like flying my own airplane 10 feet off the ground. I fantasized about buying one of these trucks and putting my office on the back of it.

But I was constantly haunted by reality. Throttle response, brake feel and sound were reminders to respect this machine. Caught daydreaming for a moment, I came close to clipping the back of a military truck at a fuel stop.

There were many times when the cell phone didn’t work and that suited me just fine. No more talking to people sounding like I was strapped to an electric paint mixer. “Aaaaaand hhhhhow aaaaare yyyyyyou?”

From my elevated vantage point, there was a lot to see. Stunning scenery and plenty of cars roofs. Roof racks. Roof antenna. At eye level, it was the eyes of the people doing exactly what I was doing, moving a big hunk of machinery down the road.

With a combined closing speed of about 120 mph, my relationship with them is brief. Just time for a nod, wave or a shrug even. An acknowledgement that we’re kin of some sort. Most of the other drivers instigated the waves. I began to suspect I was a slackard. Or were they sympathy waves?

“Here comes a poor sod in a cab-chassis . . . he deserves a wave.”

There were lots of places where truckers could check their loads. I’d pulled off once in a while to check mine; a couple of dangling door mats back there on the frame rails. I tried to avoid weigh scales where I got bored looks.

“Keep movin’, boy.”

Eventually the cell phone came to life. It was Monday morning and my normal world was waiting. I hated the thought of it all ending. By the time I finished the run, I felt like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, who wakes up every morning to exactly the same routine.

I called my contact at the GMC Truck dealership where I had picked up my ride so long ago.

“Hi Garry, you there already?”

She seemed surprised that I had made such good time.

“Yyyyyyyes, it haaasss bbbeeen qqqqquite a ttttttttrrrip,” I croaked.

“The other one is ready. When will you be back for it?” she laughed.

“I’m ooon ttttthe aaaafternoon ffffflight.”

I was actually inspired by the thought doing it all over again.

Join Garry Sowerby, a four- time Guinness World Record holder for long-distance driving, on his tales of motoring mania.Follow his accounts of 30 years of global road adventures: out-driving the clock on a race around the world; narrowly escaping bandits’bullets in Kenya;and smuggling books behind the Iron Curtain. The master road tripper hasn’t slowed down yet.

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