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Stovebolt Sagas

Oral history of Stovebolt Quests, Journeys, Treasures and Dragons

Hauling with the BIG DOGS

By Dale Hamilton

Doing things the "cowboy way"

It was the first trip out of the barn. The culmination of a three-year restoration and improvement project to rehabilitate a 40-year old Mack B-67 heavy tractor, and a similar vintage 5th wheel travel trailer. My wife Gwen and I didn't mess around with a weekend trip to a local state park. Oh no. That wouldn't have been the "cowboy way." We decided on a 1,600-mile trip from our home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, clear up to Hershey, Pennsylvania along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains.

      I checked and rechecked everything. Bought new tires for the trailer. Got a new fridge. Fixed a last-minute brakelight problem. And basically did everything a prudent man would do...

     Except stay home.

     Gwen had stocked the trailer with food for two weeks (we planned six days). Beer, wine, margaritas, and snacks -- everything.

     As we wheeled out the driveway, I offered up a silent prayer to please make this a safe trip. We made it to the interstate -- woohoo, so far so good. I crunched up through the 15 gears into overdrive allowing us to cruise at 70 mph and about 2,000 rpm. The exhaust note through twin seven-inch monster stacks at that speed is just awesome. And when the turbocharger adds its high-pitch whine, it's enough to convince even a sensible man that he should have been a trucker. As other trucks passed us, most gave us thumbs up or a toddle on their air horns. They were witness to this gray ghost from another era still hauling with the big dogs. I switched on the CB and so began a dialogue with other truckers that extended the whole way. Maybe this was not going to be so bad after all?

     Four hours later, I pulled into a truck stop to top off the diesel. I had no idea of what our fuel consumption might be. I was pleased to see that we had used about half our tankage which worked out to be about 10 mpg - very respectable towing a 10,000-pound trailer at top speed. I was pleased.

I don't do mountains

     When I planned our route, Interstate 81 was the most direct. But I noticed that it was mountains most of the way through Virginia. I had been warned about missing a gear coming down a mountainside, stuck in neutral, the load pushing you faster and faster. The air brakes, if you used them frequently would fade quickly to nothing. I'm still learning to shift, and I miss a lot of gears - and have to pull over, stop, and then shift.

     So, I opted for Plan B - go up through West Virginia -- Huntington, Charlestown, and Maryland - Hagerstown and just cruise on into Pennsylvania.

     By 5 pm, we were on the outskirts of Huntington, West Virginia. The shadows were lengthening, so we looked for a place to overnight. The trailer is set up for "boondocking" (that's what RV-ers call having the ability to camp without benefit of a campground or hookups -- you have your own generator for power). I have about 40 hours of generator time so all we needed was open space. Well, the WalMart was not where it was supposed to be! But .. I did find a kind of construction yard, with some junked vehicles parked and a "land for sale" sign. It was in a pretty rough part of town, but it offered the very important "pull-thru parking." So I was in. I shut down the diesel almost reluctantly - it had performed flawlessly all day long. I fired up the generator, switched on the hot water heater, and settled back with the first of several margaritas. Gwen busied herself with dinner. The Vice-Presidential debates were on TV. After a while, we were off to sleep in a king-sized bed, just like home.

     But I didn't sleep very well. In fact, I slept with my pants on. I kept expecting a carload of nogoodnicks to force their way into our home, rob and pillage, and I didn't want to search for my pants during the melee.

Feed your enemies

     We had a nice breakfast in the morning. Drank coffee until around 7, and then it was time for wheels up. I stepped out of the trailer on my way to the truck. I had taken only five steps when around the rear of the trailer came two black shapes - about the size of young steers, jaws gaping, teeth flashing, and howling like all the banshee's in hell. I barely made it back to the trailer. Had the door been hinged the other way, they would have had me for sure. But now what to do? I could shoot them - but it was full light now, and cars were passing on their way to work. No, gunfire was not the way to handle it. Gwen had thoughtfully left her cell phone in the truck. So there was no calling for help. Hmmm…..

     Then I had a thought. Bratwurst! We had a small supply with us that a friend hand-carried from New York for us to enjoy on this trip. I threw one out. After regarding it with suspicion for a moment, he snapped it up with obvious relish. I threw another to the other hound with similar results. Now I had their attention -- but we were not instant buddies. They were still dangerous. I took the remaining brats and diced them into grape-sized morsels, hoping I could keep their attention long enough to make it to the truck. I threw out a handful in a wide arc toward the rear of the trailer. Sure enough, they went for it, snapping them up one at a time. I stepped lively back to the truck.

     The Mack fired right up and we were outta there! I stopped a little way down the road so Gwen could join me in the cab. We were just entering I-64 when a truck problem emerged. Every time we were in a tight turn to the right, as in entering an interstate, Gwen's window would come down. Hmmm… It turns out that I had placed the power window control button exactly in the spot where my left knee would bear on it in a turn. Opps!

Feed yourself and entertain millions

     About midmorning it was time to fuel again, so I exited at the next truck stop. I must have been distracted as we entered, because instead of following the trucks into a broad expansive parking lot, my lane twisted and turned becoming narrower as we progressed. The realization that we had entered the McDonald's drive-in window lane seized me with panic. God! I was going to have to back out!

     I dispatched Gwen to the rear of the trailer so she could guide me and I dropped into reverse. I got the universal "moan back" signal and I started backing. After a few yards, she began a series of hand signals culminating with a panicky corkscrew-like motion. I stopped, straightened out, and continued to back guided by a whole flurry of equally confusing hand signals. The trailer would go first one way, and then another -- never where I intended to put it.

     About now I noticed that the McDonald's was beginning to empty -- the crowd gathered in the driveway to witness this performance. Oh God! The indignity of it all. I endured what seemed like an eternity of embarrassment before some young chap stepped up and asked if I'd like him to back the rig out of the driveway for me. I jumped at the chance and once we were clear of their driveway, I skulked off to another truck stop where I could fuel up without such attendant notoriety.

I said, I don't do mountains

     Back on the interstate, we were humming along pretty well. After a bit, we found Interstate 64 had begun to climb. Gently at first and then steeper as we progressed. I shifted out of high gear, and dropped from fifth to fourth. Then a sign appeared -- "6% Grade - Trucks Shift to Lower Gear." What was that all about? The whole reason we were driving 100 miles out of our way was to spare me the mountains. But there was no arguing with it. We were there!

     So, time to shift still lower -- GNAAASH. It wouldn't go. GNAAAASH. Again and again. So back into direct -- GNAAASH. It wouldn't go there either. So here we were in the predicament I was warned about. Stuck in neutral and headed down a mountain. Another sign -- "Runaway Truck Lane ˝ mile" - - I hoped I could make it that far. I didn't know Gwen used prayer beads -- but she was sure using them now. Faster and faster. I was going to have to use the brakes -- burn up or not. They worked, slowing me enough to shift back into direct and then into third gear. It was slow the rest of the way down the grade, but we made it -- white knuckles and all.

     By degrees, I learned that I must shift -- either up or down -- to keep the truck in its power range of 1500-1700 rpm's. Also, I should use the hill to slow me down to the point that would allow me to shift. At Morgantown (West Virginia), we picked up Interstate 68 heading towards Hagerstown (MD) and Harrisburg (PA). It was somewhere in here, going down a long hill, that I noticed I no longer had control of the throttle, and the pedal was jammed to the floor. Thank God, we were already in a low gear AND near an exit where I could pull off. It turned out that the throttle return spring had broken and the fuel pedal had come apart. Fortunately, the spring was still with the truck and I soon had it and the pedal back in place.

More practice backing-up

     The Pennsylvania countryside was absolutely stunning in early dusk. But it was apparent that our throttle problem would now cause us to travel after dark. We needed to get to our next stopping point, the High Meadow Campground. We did find it okay and our buddy Tom, who had arrived a week earlier, greeted us. Now there was only the problem of backing this 60' rig into a tiny campsite. In the dark.

     The campgrounds had been fairly quiet until I roared in with a 16,000 lb fire-breathing diesel tractor, and the various maneuvers in backing and pulling forward soon had the whole camp aroused and turned out to watch. Why do people do this?

     We got the Big Guy settled and all the days "events" were soon a blur, thanks to a few drinks and some good friends. Tom and Barbara were encamped just across the drive and we joined them at their campfire. Perhaps this is what makes RV-ing so popular. Gathering around a fire with old friends and new, sipping a few spirits and eating a little smoke. The talk that night was mostly about antique cars -- that being the reason most of us had come here. Hershey is the largest antique car show in the world. If you needed a headlight rim for a 1952 Russian Zill, you could find it at Hershey.

     We spent two days in Hershey roaming around the show and seeing all the cool stuff.

The payoff

     The show was great, but it was the time after the show and around the campfire that I enjoyed the most. Every night people would wander over, lured by the big tractor crouching in the bushes. Some were old Mack mechanics, some drivers, some just wannabes -- but they all came over to schmooze. In retrospect I guess I must have met and talked to at least 40 new people -- surely more new acquaintances than I've met in the last two years or so.

     What began as a project to restore an old truck to pull our trailer, now materialized into a means of meeting new friends, and forging new bonds with old friends.

     It doesn't get much better than this!


Dale Hamilton retired after 22 years US Army Special Forces, having had all sorts of adventures in Central America and the middle East. By trade, he is a Board-certified clinical microbiologist at the doctoral level, currently working as Supervisor of the Pathology Laboratory, Alvin York VA Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tn. But that's only his day job. By night, and when he really retires, he will be building epoxy composite replicas of 1950's speed boats in his own boat shop. He says, "Come visit -- and bring your checkbook." And he "does stovebolt." About 20 years ago he got rid of his almost new Saab and bought a 1954 Chevy 1/2-ton pickup. He's been driving it as his main transportation all these years. It has modern electrics, AC, radial tires and seat belts. Still running on original 235. It does just fine -- as it always has.


Thanks to the US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration web site for the use of the signs, and thanks to Squeeze for "altering" them!

(v July 05)

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