Elizabeth wrinkled her nose: “Stinktier.”
I started to laugh: “Really? That’s cool. It’s ‘skunk’ in English but we say anything that smells bad ‘stinks’.”
“Sk –uuunk?” She looked at me for confirmation and I nodded.
“Skunk.” She said confidently. Then, with a grin: “Skunk stinks.”
I laughed again. “Yep, skunk stinks.”
We had just driven over an already dead skunk on the highway and the smell had permeated the truck.
Elizabeth was a German nurse visiting America with her best friend Ute. They had intended to tour mostly by bus and train but through some set of quirky circumstances had ended up in my truck headed for California. Sort of. Well, you see, Ute was in Mark’s truck ahead of us. They would often rearrange – sometimes two per truck, sometimes one in each. Elizabeth liked to listen to her favorite song Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero
This story is one that I still don’t understand after many years of pondering. It involved so many “coincidences” that I lost track of reality and came to expect impossible occurrences – kind of like finding a pathway to an alternate universe in the back of your closet and no longer being surprised when strange creatures come and go through your room.
Elizabeth was 32, intelligent and eager. Her English was decent, although special words like “skunk” she was still adding to her vocabulary. She had been in a bad fire some years before (she told me later in the trip), and the right side of her face was seriously scarred to a level that many would consider disfigured. But there was a spark of life in her eyes that had not died and she was interested in all that was around her – and interested in discussing it. This delighted me and we launched into many topics that are seldom discussed – like metaphysics, the meaning of religion, and such.
Ute was the younger of the two at about 27. She spoke only rudimentary English and would only converse in German with Elizabeth. Ute was very energetic and whichever truck she was in, she had the stereo cranked loud and would dance in place in the truck. When confined to her seat, she literally bounced continually to the music. She also looked just like a model – which interested Mark, even though I got the impression the women weren’t looking for romantic relationships.
This surreal situation had started when I had crossed the Rainbow Bridge into the United States at Buffalo. I didn’t normally cross there but I had a load that required agricultural inspection and there were only a few US crossings where that could be done. Once cleared inspection and customs, I stopped at a truck stop at the junction of I-90. As I walked into the restaurant, a voice called out to me. Looking around, I spied Mark, and he was sitting with the Elizabeth and Ute, having lunch (the women were dipping their French fries in mayonnaise – apparently a common thing in Europe). I joined them and Mark made the introductions. Apparently, he was trying to convince them to ride to California with him. They were at the truck stop as it was the terminus of the bus they had taken from New York, and they had to either catch another bus or a train. Meanwhile, Mark wanted to transport them – especially Ute.
I refused to comment on his pitch but the women wanted to know where I was going – which was Los Angeles. Somehow, they felt more comfortable with the two of us. Elizabeth was an excellent negotiator, and she said they would go with Mark if I travelled with them. How I get into these things, I really don’t know. Mark asked if I was willing to travel with him to California. He too was going to Los Angeles. We had trucked together before and I was fine with that – he could make as many miles in a day as I could when he waned. These women were young and obviously not high maintenance (everything each owned was in one backpack), so that was fine too. We had 2650 miles ahead of us running the northern route through Salt Lake City, it being July and too hot to run the desert unless unavoidable. A deal was struck, and after lunch, our little group mounted up – Elizabeth with me and Ute with Mark. And so began the trip through the looking glass.
As we rolled along, Elizabeth and I talked and I asked how she came to be sitting in a truck stop in Buffalo. The story was horrifying. They had arrived in New York by plane, intending to take their time and cross the US by bus and train, stopping when they wanted to visit and do the tourist thing. With this in mind, they took a bus to Grand Central station where they would decide which way to go based on the schedules. Standing outside the station conversing in German, they were accosted by a group of teens who started calling them Nazis and shouting obscenities at them, demanding they speak English as they were in America now. Elizabeth tried to explain that Ute couldn’t speak English, and further abuse followed. The women were scared and tried to get away but the boys stoned them and then grabbed them and started to beat them.
Eventually the police intervened, and the boys ran away. Both women were so badly beaten that they had to spend week in the hospital – money out of their own pockets. Welcome to America, the land of tolerance – NOT. I had noticed fading bruises on Elizabeth’s arms that looked like defensive injuries, and she raised her top and showed me her abdomen covered with cuts and bruises where they had kicked her. And that was why they were in Buffalo. They had decided to go to Canada to visit instead of the US, and they wanted to start in Toronto – Buffalo being the closest border crossing to Toronto. Apparently Mark had been convincing enough that they decided while in the ladies room to take a chance and go across the US with us instead.
When we stopped for supper, Mark said he was tired of Ute – she used too much energy and asked to switch, which we did. Ute and Elizabeth were talking on the CB – we had moved to an unused channel so as not to irritate the other drivers. Ute discovered that she had left her favorite CD in Mark’s truck and wanted to stop and get it. Mark was pissed off and said we would get it to her without stopping. He directed me to stick my left arm out the driver’s window and keep my speed steady and course straight and he would pull alongside and have Elizabeth place the CD in my hand. So we did and it was a hoot- running 70 mph with our mirrors actually overlapped and the trucks inches apart while the CD was passed across. The women thought it was hilarious.
Both Mark and I had trucks with two beds each so when we stopped for the night there was plenty of room. Mark insisted that Ute stay in his truck which was fine with me. He obviously thought he would score, but I had my doubts. Elizabeth and I talked late into the night and then went to bed.
The next morning Mark had apparently not gotten his way because he said he was not feeling well and wanted to stay in bed longer. I had to go and I said so, and the women chose to go with me. I had an Aerodyne Kenworth at the time with a large bunk, so there was lots of room and off we went. Ute was as energetic as always and her favorite song was Loverboy’s Turn Me Loose – my favorite as well, so I was fine when she played it over and over very loud (I had a 150 watt per channel stereo that was so loud the windows had to be down to play it on high volume).
Late that night just south of Salt Lake City, the women were chatting between themselves when suddenly smoke started to pour out from under the hood with no warning. I braked hard to a stop, grabbed the fire extinguisher, jumped out and popped the hood. Looking around frantically with the flashlight, I realized that it was not smoke but steam coming from a leak in the water pump – the main seal was gone. The women were standing outside as well – I had told them to get out quick when I thought it was a fire. I showed them the damage – not fixable in the side of the road. A Utah State Trooper came along and stopped. I explained what had happened and asked him to call Caterpillar (the engine dealer) in Salt Lake City and arrange a tow. He did that, and as we were talking, Mark showed up and pulled over in front of us. I explained what had happened and asked if he wanted to take the women – they would be bored in the garage the next day. He and they agreed. At that point we were only about 600 miles out of LA so I figured I’d never see them again so we said our good-byes with hugs form the women and off they went.
I got towed the 60 miles back to Salt lake City that night, and the next day, Cat had a new water pump on by noon (all warrantee) and I was on my way. I pulled into LA Cold Storage in the wee hours of the morning and was unloaded first thing the next day. I went out to a 76 truck stop in Ontario just east of LA to spend the night, but had just pulled in when another of our drivers showed up in a police cruiser. Donny had been driving east on I-10 when a sports car changed lanes and went under the trailer – no one was killed but the trailer and car were wrecked. Donny had a load that night out of Bakersfield to Newfoundland and he wanted me to cover it. A quick call to dispatch verified that was their desire and they had told him where I was when he called in- just a few miles from his accident. The cops had given him a lift over to find me. I took the info and set out for Bakersfield.
The produce dealer where I was loading in Bakersfield looked like a war zone. There were steel X beans welded together like a tank barrier across the entrance. There were holes in the building and armed guards and police on guard. Down the block marched protesters, kept in place by more police. Apparently there was a strike going on. In the process of loading I found out that a strike breaker had been killed earlier in the week when the strikers broke in during the night and beat the scabs that were doing their jobs during the strike. The inside of the building had been trashed, and the supervisor warned me that the protesters had been following any trucks leaving and harassing the drivers when they stopped. Great. I made sure my bladder was empty and I had lots of coffee and some sandwiches from their lunch room machines. When I left they did follow, but turned back after about 250 miles when I hadn’t pulled over. Thankful for the warning I drove another hour before stopping to sleep.
By this time I was well over my log hours as I should have stopped earlier had I not been followed. I awoke in the early afternoon and was sitting in the tractor with the key on accessory listening to some music while trying to make my logbook look legal, when the CB squawked in German. I couldn’t believe it. I grabbed the mic and hollered for Elizabeth. She told me she was with another driver who was coming into the truck stop and she would meet me in the restaurant. Ute was just behind with another driver. I met them inside and we hugged in greeting. Apparently Mark had dropped them at a mall outside LA at their request and had gone about his business. They got a motel for the night, talked it over and decided to go back to Toronto. So, having had good luck before, they went to the nearest truck stop and got a ride with a couple of drivers headed east. Those two drivers were dropping at this exit and heading back so the women needed a ride further east. I volunteered, so we ate and headed down the road back towards eastern Canada.
Late that night we pulled into a service area to sleep and as we drove down the row of trucks looking for a parking spot, I couldn’t believe my eyes – there was Mark’s truck idling as he slept. I found a parking spot and pulled in. I wrote a note saying we were here, walked back and stuck it under Mark’s windshield wiper so he would see it when he awoke.
The next morning I awoke with a banging at the door and it was Mark. I let him in and sat up front while the women got up and got dressed in the bunk with the curtain down. I think he got the wrong idea, but I didn’t bother to straighten him out. After tiding up and making the beds, we went down the road to the nearest truck stop and had breakfast. We were on I-80 and would take it east to I-90 in Cleveland then east on I-90 to Boston. The women decided to stay with us to Albany and then get a ride north on I-87 to Montreal. They spent the two days of driving switching from Mark’s truck to mine and back to his again, but generally Elizabeth rode with me and Ute with Mark. I introduced them to some of my favorite music including REO Speedwagon’s Take it on the Run, and we talked and sang along. The women got a great kick out of talking to each other on the CB and did so at every opportunity.
We eventually arrived in Albany and found a driver who was willing to take both women to Montreal. I hugged Elizabeth good-bye, and she looked like she wanted to stay and make more of our friendship but it was not to be – our paths in life were very different. Then they were gone and the truck felt so empty – a truck that I had piloted alone for so many years now felt like something was missing. I went back over the memories of the women and especially Elizabeth – something I would occasionally do for the rest of my life- and remember her smile and laugh.
Image links are included with photos for this post (click on picture)