It’s produce season here in the Midwest, and we are up to our ears in cabbage. The kind that grows up and hopes to be coleslaw for Kentucky Fried Chicken or maybe get boiled with some potatoes, carrots, a few onions and sweet corn on the cob. If you’re really living high on the hog, then you might want to throw in some ring bologna.
My dad always called this weird concoction Hobo Stew. Mostly because it is a reminder of days gone by when men traveling the rails would come together and share an evening meal around the fire. Each would contribute whatever they had, tossing in vegetables or maybe canned meats that may have been borrowed from someone’s garden or storeroom. All together it was more than each had separately. A hot meal usually was the result of one empty potato chip tin and a campfire.
Anyone who knew my dad would tell you it wasn’t about the meal as much as it was about the fellowship! I can remember many Saturday afternoon softball games down at the church yard and a few nights at the county fair when everyone got together around a boiled dinner and talked. The subject of our discussion wasn’t that important, but the connection with others made everyday life a little more enjoyable. Don’t worry, you didn’t pick up a magazine from the Food Network. I’m just reminded of some childhood memories. The kind of memories that last a lifetime and become the basis for who and what I am now.
Someone grab that old steel rim and get some broken pallets – you, over there, got a light? Douse that puppy with diesel and stand back. Now we’re cooking in the back row of the truck stop. It’s truck show season and everyone wants in on the action. If you notice, I will try to weave a common thread through all these ideas. But first, the reason this all came up is kinda crazy.
I loaded cabbages at one of the local produce sheds today. A shed is the name given to a farm shipping dock often located in or next to the fields where the produce is grown. After loading in the field, I rushed down to the Pilot Truck Stop to scale out my trailer. We all know the shipper’s weight is always correct, right? And the price of fuel is cheap, too! While I was there, dispatch calls (that’s my wife/banker) and informs me that my two-day trip will take a little detour of about eight extra days. “Honey, I need money if you want me to eat!” I didn’t know that was an option. I do now. Barb said I should get some polish sausage and a couple rings of bologna. Sure, that and 4 or 5 heads of cabbage will feed me plenty. That might feed me for a while, but there won’t be anyone wanting to ride with me in the cab.
While I was waiting for more bank funds to arrive, I parked along the side of their driveway out near the road. Not wanting to look too much like a newbie that can’t park, I was outside checking tires and, in general, doing an inspection, since I won’t be getting to my shop this weekend. While I was working, I didn’t pay any attention to the car that pulled alongside of me. Two men with cameras sat in the front seat. My first thoughts were: “Who are they,” and “What do they think I have done?” I did a quick scan of the area to see if there were any blacked-out SUVs or SWAT vehicles. None. I breathe a silent sigh of relief. They may have found me, but they don’t know who I am… yet!
The passenger spoke first, in very good English, but with a European accent. What struck me was the accent – I can most often place a driver when listening to them, but this one, no way! Their request was to photograph my dirty, unpolished, mud on the frame, straight from the field, old working truck. “Well sure, but…” too late, they were out of the car and clicking away. They were talking excitedly to each other and every little once in a while I would catch a word or phase I understood.
After a few minutes, they had lots of photos and then asked me to pose with my ride. Reluctantly, I did, hiding behind the dirt streaked and dusty air cleaner. They looked a bit surprised at how embarrassed I was. We stood there in the Pilot Truck Stop parking lot, talking in a common language – we talk trucks around here. I wrote earlier they spoke very good English, and that’s what threw me off. Europeans speak the Queen’s English – the same words but sometimes they mean different things. There’s a bit of a learning curve when conversing with people from different places and work experience.
Truck drivers like our predecessors, who rode the rails across America, are quick to share their experiences and, if possible, help others through their knowledge. Trucks are trucks and they all have the same basic parts: engines, tires, trailers and the like, so where do you start? I had to know where they came from and why they were in middle America taking photos of dirty trucks.
When I asked them where they were from, their faces lit up like a wall of chicken lights on display at Walcott’s I-80 Truck Stop. “We are from Sweden and we both drive trucks. We are here on holiday (that’s a vacation to us) to photograph working trucks for a website (www.toprun.ch).” I then said, “Well, that explains why you’re in America, but where are you going?” Again, they both became animated, and said, “Shell SuperRigs” in unison. “We are going to Albert Lea, Minnesota.” I had to ask more than once, because between their accent and the pronunciation, I couldn’t understand them. I’m still not sure they knew where Minnesota was or how far it was from us at that moment.
As we talked, I realized they already knew the secret to life – every trip is all about the journey, more so than the destination. During the course of our conversation, I learned one of them drives a fantastic looking W900 KW, pulling a specialized race car trailer, hauling around the European racing circuit, and the other had one kick-butt Scania cabover (see pics). How few of us could go to another land and talk to local drivers in their own language? Not me, but who knows, maybe that’s what hand signals are for.
They told me they don’t see many Peterbilts over there, so mine was the first they came across. That’s not too surprising, since they had just flown into Detroit Metro Airport about 60 miles away. The trucks with big wheelbase and our Michigan multi-axle trailers were of special interest to them, since they use more truck-trailer combinations in Sweden, whereas we use more tractor-trailer combos. I had a great time explaining some of our axle weights and the advantages of different types of trailer configurations. We all had our cell phones out doing weight conversions, from pounds to kilos, then to metric tons. Once again, trucks are all pretty much the same – it doesn’t matter where you come from, only the rules that govern us change, but hey, it gives us something to talk about over a good fire.
My wife eventually made her way to the truck stop to give me more money and, unfortunately, I had to leave. I wanted to stay and learn more about trucking in Sweden, but I didn’t want to miss my delivery appointment. We said our goodbyes and then, as I was about to go, I remembered they had asked me where a good place to eat was. Well, if you know me, then you know I’m always thinking about food (guess that’s why I haul refrigerated trailers). Ten minutes later, I gave them special instructions on how to find one of my “honey holes” for a great breakfast.
If you have never eaten at R-Place in Morris, Illinois, you don’t know what you’re missing. It still has reserved seating for professional drivers at the counter, and cinnamon rolls as big as your pillow. Please don’t tell my doctor or my wife, or I will be reduced to eating oatmeal again. Then, I sent them on their way, happy as they could be. I climbed back up in the cab of my old Peterbilt, smiling like a 10-year-old kid with season tickets to the dessert bar.
Before I left, they expressed some concern that I might have to hurry to be at me destination on time. Keep in mind, they have all kinds of restrictions on their trucks – speed limiters, electronic logs and more I didn’t understand. When they were describing all their controls, they put both hands around their necks and stuck their tongues out. All I could do was smile and say, “Load it like a coal car, and drive it like a cattle car.” Not sure how much they understood, but when I said “cattle car” they smiled.
We are all familiar with the words in the song “Teddy Bear” that says, “I hit the highway with tears in my eyes, and then I got another surprise…” Well, I did get a real surprise today, and from friends I didn’t even know till just a little while ago. Like the hobos from years gone by, we still have that common thread – the road. Our road has no rails, but it still holds us firmly in its grasp and watches over us. We are tied together by time and distance, sometimes jumping oceans and crossing continents. How often in our day-to-day lives do we take the time to chat someone up just to pass the time? When was the last time you stopped to get a screen shot of someone’s truck? Not every truck will win Best of Show in a contest, but that doesn’t stop the driver from having pride in their ride and helping to improve the image of trucking (some things we all should be doing).
I still remember a time when we would have campfires out behind the truck stops at night and on weekends. When friends could slow down a bit and relax amongst our own people. Keep in mind, our people come in different sizes, shapes and colors. Some wear western hats and others baseball caps, and some are sporting solar panels, and don’t need a cover. Today has been a humbling experience for me – to be shown this kind of respect and admiration is out of the ordinary. I am honored to have been able to represent a positive attitude to our trucking brothers from over there. What I found most amazing is they knew about 10-4 Magazine and are readers online. Just goes to show how much influence a small group of people can have.
If you get a chance, check out their website (www.toprun.ch). I can’t read any of the content, it’s in Swedish, but the pics are amazing. Who knows, maybe you will see some of the winners from Shell SuperRigs on there. My old truck still needs a bath, but that doesn’t dim the glow I feel tonight rolling down the 75. Those wheels are humming, and my sun-tanned arm is hanging out the drivers’ side window waving at everyone I meet! How cool is that – just call me a Highway Hobo – I’m good with that. If you see me behind the truck stop lighting a fire in an old oil drum, don’t call the fire department, come on over, say hello and maybe sit a spell while I boil up some stew – Hobo Stew. Till next time our paths cross, I’m wavin’ a big hand to ya, 10-4!