Allow me to give some background to this narrative poem. I drove Transport from Edmonton, Alberta to Yellowknife, North West Territories in Northern Canada for approx. … 5 years when I was 23 years of age. I am now 65 years of age and many times over my life I have looked upon the “driving transport” period of my life as one of the richest times I had. I met a wealth of people during this time, all of them interconnected and interwoven in their way. The highway is what connected us all. In those days, we drove in teams and we were the only woman team driving the north. We went through periods of complete boredom to absolute hilarious situations, some dangerous situations, some very sad situations and if it were possible to turn back time, I would again hit that road in a heartbeat.
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I am Saddleslipper, an 18 wheeler, a longhauler pulling double trailers. A Freightliner with dual chrome smokestacks, diesel tanks, headache bar dripping with chains and tandem tires. No huge nose sniffing out the road, I am a cabover. With the pulling power of a Mack truck and the speed of a Peterbuilt we run the great North, each rig loaded with needed supplies and equipment. From groceries to medicine, from lumber to heavy equipment, pipe and machinery needed by all who live, work and play in the far North.
My driver climbs in, orders in hand. I’m backed up with skill under trailers groaning with the weight of their overloads. Air brakes, king pin, tires, fluid levels checked as if they were in a B52 bomber ready for take off. The load is paramount, the reason for our existence. It must be at the destination on time. A sacred bond exists between driver and truck to deliver the load so no hardship will fall, so no one goes without.
Teams of Huskies and Malamutes have to eat fueling their strength to pull weighted sleds. Defending against predators, hungry bears and wolves, they are the trappers lifeline, their connection to the world. They must be kept strong. They are counting on us, waiting at the destination, to restock their supplies. Turning back to the trap lines and run the trails, trappers must earn their living for their families and provide.
We head up the Mackenzie Highway, trucks in a line snaking their way, each to their own destination. Yellowknife, Fort Rae, Fort Resolution, Hay River, Edzo, all waiting in anticipation. Engines whine with each shift of our transmissions. Like Geese in formation each taking their turn, pointing the way, responsibility is taken. Cowboy Jim loaded with lumber, Easy Rider saddled with coiled steel, The FBI hauling oil rig equipment, all on a mission. With our ears, we listen with interest to the bantering chatter of the drivers. They talk to each other up and down the line settling into a natural rhythm.
Smokestacks blowing black clouds, thick with diesel straining to climb treacherous hills. Around Great Slave Lake in resplendent colour at sunrise or sunset we all stop to admire. Tugboats and barges slowly make their way to deliver their loads along the great lake. We all blow a hello and with a stiff breeze our ears wave good bye and a safe trip.
The Autumn comes upon us. We race to deliver the loads before freeze up. The grass is brown, rusted and decaying, the trees have coloured in the most brilliant of hues. The threat of cold air beginning to nip us, the sky is coloured in grey mask to tease us. The fine mist now rises and crosses our path. Drivers strain to hold the road while snow, ice and rain swirl around them. Motors purr in unison watching each other hold the line. Should one stray too far to the side or unable to climb the hills all would stop and render assistance. My driver would climb out grabbing chains off the headache bar, crawling on his belly he inches a chain on each tire to grip hard. A living roller coaster, we roll along keeping an eye out for each other making sure all are able to run. Along the way Royal Canadian Mounted Police watch with a vigilant eye for accidents or runaways sitting in piles by the side of the road, muskeg deep.
Winter creeps in slowly and silently. The air is crisp and bites at my chrome. The ground becomes white, hard, unforgiving and trees are now naked and shivering. No more comfortable rides on the ferry crossing the MacKenzie River. A trust has to begin like no other. Trusting the ice is frozen enough, trusting my driver knows where to cross. Sub zero weather coating me with thick ice. Drivers unhooking and hooking my trailers. Taking each trailer across on its’ own, crossing back to retrieve the one left silently alone.
The symphony begins. Northern Lights hum their song and dance in rhythm witness to the procession. Flashing white orbs like sparklers at a parade, bobbing and whipping from one end of the sky to the other. Undulating ribbons of colour … pink, blue, magenta, gold … stretch from treeline to heaven.
The scene is set, slowly across. My driver holds steady and whispers while saying his prayers “Saddleslipper, let’s do this, you know how, I’m here with you”. I whine in acknowledgement and with a growl, I bear down low into my transmission. We are a team, my driver and I, dependent on each other, working together with purpose and pride. I crawl on the ice road while it moans its’ objection. My driver leaves his door ajar ready to jump clear if the ice starts to open. The ice constantly shifting as we cross over while silent underground waves teasing and taunting threaten to lap up and break through to snatch us. The ice snaps and pops waiting for a false move ready to claim us. My tires dig in slowly pushing us on, my driver holds his breath and rides along. With each movement of Northern Lights in pulsating rhythm, their humming beckons us onward asking angels to protect us.
A crescendo at the end, a burst of riotous song and heavenly attendance cascades as we reach the other side of the river.
A separation from the others, a break from the line, we turn down a small road and bid them goodbye. Finally the destination. A hunter’s moon lighting the way into Fort Rae, a Tlicho community living in traditional ways. A trip into the past, life is the same, hunting and fishing, nothing has changed. New ways now in play, a marriage entered into, old ways and new with mining and oil exploration.
A melting pot of old and new cultures, Tlicho, Dene, Chipewyan, Dogrib, Slavey, Cree, Metis and white trappers. Native children running beside us waving and yelling. Truck smart dogs barking and jumping, ravens scream our arrival hoping to steal a small meal. My driver pulls the children up one at a time and with little hands they blow my air horn squealing with absolute glee. We are the heroes this week. Paint and chrome gleaming for all to admire, our dents and scratches boldly displayed as badges of honour, statements of trips past, close calls, near misses. Men lumber out of their homes pulling on their jackets wiping sleep from their eyes. Women follow, alert with excitement. With frozen breath, all talk as if at a party, gossiping, teasing, laughing and shouting orders to each other.
Tents come alive as trappers line up, everyone ready to unload while the dogs water our tires. Are they hoping flowers will grow? With dispatch they decide the tasks to unload our trailers. Methodically and quickly we are laid bare. Proud of the job completed, we turn back to the highway and run up to Yellowknife delivering a load of sailboat fuel. It was not always like this. In past years, inexperienced or drunk drivers, stripping my gears, losing loads, running off the road. “I don’t know what happened, the damn truck had a mind of it’s own!” they would cry as their bottles of whiskey rolled along my floor. I suffered the humiliation of failed trips, bad runs. Of being hauled out of the swamp, the muskeg, with my rear axle in the air for all to see, the crane being as gentle as he could be. Cowboy Jim and The FBI inching by horrified, knowing they could have been in the quagmire instead. Pity and scorn mixed into one. Pity for me to suffer the humiliation of a failed run. Scorn for the driver as he was no driver at all, but just a drunk. The inexperienced driver who crashed my gears, try as I might I could not crawl or run. My transmission rendered useless by one who knew nothing.
The driver who was reckless and cared not at all, driving me with no skill, I was crashed into everything he saw. Breaking tail lights, doors and chrome like a wrecking ball. The new driver came and looked at the damage done, the scars, the waste of my once new carriage. He smiled and muttered, “I can fix most of this”. Papers changed hands and in no time he was busy repairing. New paint, new chrome, new brakes and transmission. A soothing steam clean inside and out to refresh my soul, to signal a new beginning, a new start. Hands sure and with knowledge go over each inch ensuring everything is as it should be. A bond, a pact is now formed between my driver and I, we are ready to haul the loads, eat up the roads. We take our place with quiet surety, beaming with pride.
We turn in to the yard slowly, deliberately, my driver looking where to drop trailers. Backed up with precision and brought to a halt, out goes my driver to unhook and walk about. Dolly wheels laid down, king pin and hoses pulled. A separation. Great weight now lifted. Off to the washing bay for a scrub inside and out. My driver in desperate need of sleep finishes the job with care and respect. As he washes and polishes he checks to make sure no repairs are needed. Backed up in my spot, I savour the run completed. Another trip well done. No crashed gears, no lost loads, the ice was kind to us, and a thought to the next run, the next load to be safely delivered.
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