Columnists, Delivery & Installation, Operations, V9I5

Of Truck Stops, Deep Shadows, and Unwelcome Boarders

(Photo courtesy of Ganapathy Kumar on Unsplash)

Settling into the soft bed and clean sheets of my sleeper, I sighed contentedly and closed my eyes. 

It had been a long, stressful day, and the quiet shadows of the night enveloped the parking lot in peaceful slumber. The lights of Seattle glowed on the horizon, but 30 miles separated me from the questionable night activities of the city life. 

For a country boy like me, that was just fine. 

As my thoughts slid seamlessly into dreams and my consciousness lay dormant, the primitive part of my brain categorized the night sounds and dismissed them one by one. 

Years of camping in grizzly country on hunting trips have sharpened my survival skills, and sleeping with half my brain still listening is second nature. So, when my eyes flew open an hour later, there was no groggy state of sleep clouding my brain. My senses were on high alert, and my ears tuned to the slightest noise. 

Ever so slightly, I felt the truck shift as if a cat had jumped onto the hood. Faint, indistinct voices swirled around the darkness surrounding the silent truck and trailer. 

Two months earlier, the vibrating of my phone pulled me from my work as I lay under my Peterbilt running new hoses for the mule carriage. 

“Hello, this is Jason,” I said as I rolled out from under the truck. 

“Hello,” the raspy smoker’s voice filled the earpiece. “My name is Russel Peters. Do you move sheds? I need a shed moved from Montana to northwest Washington.”

“Sure thing,” I replied. “Do you have pictures of the building and both addresses?”

“Sure,” Russel scratched out. “Can I text those to you?”

“Absolutely. Send me that info, and I will get you a price.”

A few minutes later, my phone vibrated several times in quick succession, and upon opening it, I saw a number of pictures with addresses. 

From there, it was a short minute to figure out mileages and the required pilot car charges before I fired off a message listing my prices. 

I wasn’t expecting a reply as good, legal shed moving prices are fairly high, and moving across three states with a building requiring pilot cars was certainly going to cost more than I thought Mr. Peters would want to pay. 

To my surprise, two weeks later my phone lit up with a belated reply from the gravelly-voiced Russell asking, “When can you do this?”

“Well, I’m pretty tied up the next few weeks, but I should be able to fit you in next month,” I replied. 

“Let’s do it,” was the cheerful raspy reply.

That’s how the following month found me rolling westward across the Rockies of Montana and Idaho to the deserts of eastern Washington. 

The hot, dry summer sun beat mercilessly on the blacktop, and my air conditioner chose that day to shirk its responsibilities. Luckily, the roads were not too busy, and by rolling the windows down, I was able to keep a good breeze going in the cab. 

However, once I hit the border of Washington, traffic slowed to a crawl, and my shirt began to stick to my back. As I rolled past the Washington Port of Entry, I was relieved to see the red “Closed” sign flashing. My load just happened to be two inches over my permitted height, and I was half expecting trouble at some point. 

Thankfully, the scale employees had decided to take a break from checking the westbound loads, and shortly thereafter, I was back up to highway speeds, shirt drying off rapidly. 

I particularly dislike heavy traffic, and when hauling an oversized load, I really begin to develop an aversion to the proximity of other road travelers, especially those who apparently got their license from a vending machine. 

Years ago, my father-in-law gave me great advice for situations like this: find the right lane, set your cruise slightly slower than the rest of traffic, and just let the crazies pour around you. After trying it, I must agree that it is the most relaxing way to navigate the multi-lane highways packed with speed demons with an apparent death wish.

Accordingly, I was somewhat relaxed a few hours later when I began the climb over the Cascade Mountains. No white-knuckle, stressed-out navigation to wear me down, even though oversized loads demand higher concentration and care. 

Too late to make it past Seattle before the evening rush hour curfew, I found a parking spot and tried to take a nap to pass the time, but the heat soon forced me to take refuge in the air-conditioned lounge of the truck stop. 

Not that I am averse to a bit of heat it’s just that little rivers of sweat trickling down my back prevent my dropping off to peaceful slumber. 

“Hey, are you the driver of that oversized load out there?” The query from behind me arrested my attention. 

I turned to face the speaker. Earpiece hung around his neck and fingerless gloves matched the shorts and flip-flops of a typical asphalt cowboy. 

“Yes sir, that’s me,” I replied. “What’s up?”

“Well, I figured you should know that a couple of homeless dudes were eyeing your load,” he grinned. “Looked like they were considering a new spot to sleep tonight.

“Looks like a nice little cabin” he added. “Where you taking it?”

“It’s going north of Seattle,” I replied. “Man, I’d better go make sure the building is locked up. I definitely don’t need any passengers.”

Exiting the cool comfort of the lounge, I soon enough spotted the potential boarders. Even as I approached, one fellow reached up to try the doorknob on the loaded cabin. 

“Hey man, stay away from the building!” I called out. “Can’t have you crawling over my load.”

Startled, the disheveled guy made a dash for the next parking lot, stopping only long enough to grab his shopping cart full of garbage. The little wheels of the cart protested loudly as they spun across the roughened tarmac rutted by thousands of trucks. 

I grinned despite my consternation at how nearly I had acquired a rider. Right then, I decided I had stopped long enough. I wasn’t going to risk it by staying another minute in this particular parking lot. If I drove slow enough, the greater Seattle area curfew would be over by the time I reached the city limits. 

As I did a short walk around the rig to double check, I found boot tracks on the rear trailer ramps and a quick check inside the shed revealed a water bottle there. 

Shaking my head at the close call and the incredible stupidity of people climbing onto a loaded rig as soon as it stopped, I locked up the shed and carried the water to the curb. No sense in throwing it away. Maybe the fellow would come back for it. 

Darkness was creeping over the land by the time I finally rolled down off the interstate ramp at my planned overnight parking location. The pilot cars required for non-interstate travel were to meet me there in the morning, and I was relieved to have reached the destination with no mishaps. 

The close call with the potential riders had me suspicious of every shadow, so I felt some trepidation as I left my parked load and hiked a few blocks to a cafe for some comfort food. 

With a full belly and the prospect of a good night’s sleep, I did one last check of my load and climbed into the sleeper, bringing us back to the beginning of our story.

As I jolted awake from the unexpected motion of the parked truck and trailer, I sat up carefully and peered out the front windows of the darkened truck. Nothing was visible in any of my mirrors or windows, but I could feel faint tremors in the frame of the parked truck. 

Irregular movements were shaking the truck ever so slightly, and I could hear what sounded like voices murmuring indistinctly from somewhere behind me. 

Despite my best efforts at craning my neck and checking every mirror, nothing was visible. In a sleeper-equipped truck pulling an oversized load, that isn’t saying much, but I was still baffled. The movements were so slight and the voices, if that’s what they were, were so faint I doubted myself. 

Just as I considered getting dressed and getting out of the truck, sudden movement from the right side window caught my eye. A shadowy figure was weaving between the darkened trucks and campers parked on my right side. Short, jerky movements and swiveling head matched the angry voice that erupted from the hooded face.

“Ally! Where are you?” The little man marched right by several other parked rigs and repeated his query while his head swiveled left and right erratically. 

While I pondered whether Ally was a dog or a girl, I decided I wasn’t getting out of the truck. Maybe the movement I had felt was just the air bags settling as they slowly lost pressure. If that was the case, the “voices” I heard were probably just creaks from the suspension. 

Not that I was convinced; I just decided that was what I would believe. The prospect of getting out of the relative safety of my cab was losing appeal by the second. 

I’m a country boy, and had it been a grizzly bear, a wild horse, or even a mountain lion, I would have grabbed the shotgun from beside my camp bed and trotted right out of a tent to confront any wandering marauders. 

However, city nightlife and creepy noises that might or might not be human? Well, I just lay back down in the sleeper and trusted my door locks.

After a minute or two, I could no longer hear the calls for “Ally” from the marching little man, and I closed my eyes. 

However, just a short time later my eyes bounced open again as if on springs. Once more I felt the distinct movement of the truck as someone or something pushed against it, and a faint rocking motion swayed my bed. This time, the voices were louder although still indistinct. 

Sitting up once more, I reached forward and turned the ignition key partially on. A few seconds later, the cameras on the rear of my sleeper came to life. 

The screens flickered ghostly black and white images of my load and the trailer under it. Scanning them closely, I saw nothing that looked like someone crawling on my trailer or attempting to board the locked shed. 

I quietly opened my sleeper door and furtively peered out. Nothing was visible. No shadows scurried away, and nobody attacked me. 

In disgust, I shut the door and turned the key off. Either my imagination was running wild or the burger I had eaten a few hours earlier was laced with more than ketchup. I briefly considered starting the big diesel and letting it idle, but the night was so peaceful the big Cat’s rumble would probably keep me from sleeping. Once more, I rolled over and closed my eyes. 

The next time my eyes flew open, there was no longer any doubt. As the truck once more shifted and rocked in the quiet moonlight, I heard the clear sounds of weeping. Muffled sobs filtered their way into the cab as I slipped into a shirt. 

Gently sliding into the driver’s seat, I rolled the window halfway down and leaned out. Muffled, choking cries seemed to be coming from under my truck. At last, I spotted a huddled figure curled up next to my rear tires. Arms around her knees and rocking back and forth, the hooded girl rocked my truck and emitted soft cries.

 Since I had looked at that very spot a few minutes earlier when I opened my sleeper door, it was clear that this girl had just moved to this position. 

Was this a trap? Was this girl high? Should I emerge from my truck like a knight in shining armor to help a maiden in distress? A dozen questions swirled through my head. Something just wasn’t adding up. As a matter of fact, a few somethings were not feeling right. 

After silently watching her a few minutes, I asked gently, “Are you ok?” 

Nothing changed in the huddled figure, but finally I heard a muffled reply. “No. My boyfriend beat me up.”

As I pondered this rather disturbing statement, a small blue Subaru squealed into the parking lot. In the dim glow of streetlamps, I could see two men sitting in the front seats peering left and right as they zipped between the lines of parked trucks. The driver was the same fellow who had been searching for Ally 30 minutes before.

“Does your boyfriend drive a blue car?” I asked.

Recoiling in fear, the girl refused to answer, but her body language certainly seemed to indicate that he did. 

“Do you want me to call the cops?” I asked. 

Once more, she recoiled in apparent fear, but this time an emphatic “No!” came from her head buried between her knees. 

Well, now I certainly wasn’t about to get out of the cab. Something just felt off. Maybe it was my country ignorance, or maybe it was my guardian angel keeping me safe, but I knew getting out of the cab was a bad idea. I also knew I couldn’t ignore this poor girl’s plight. 

I hesitated only a second before rolling my window back up and dialing 911.

“Hello, where is your emergency?” The calm, professional voice filled my ear.

“Hello, I’m a truck driver, and I’m parked in the truck parking area just north of Exit 95 along I5,” I said. “There is a girl hiding beside my truck, and she says her boyfriend is beating her. I don’t feel safe getting out of my truck because there have been a few people seemingly searching for her. Plus, this feels like a trap to lure me out of the truck.”

As I continued speaking and answering the dispatcher’s questions, the girl abruptly stood up and began walking away from the parked trucks across the well-lit parking lot next door. Relaying that info to the dispatcher, I remarked that I was moving my truck.

“I’m going to move to a better lit area of the parking lot. If the responding officers want to speak to me, I’ll be in the black Peterbilt with an oversized load parked by Cabela’s.”

The rumble of the big Cat seemed extraordinarily loud in the quiet parking lot as I stirred the truck to life. Turning the lights on one switch at a time, I waited a minute while the truck built up air. 

By now, the suspicious gal had disappeared near a coffee shop that was closed for the night. 

“I doubt any cop is going to come out over this call,” I muttered to myself as I shifted into gear and released the brakes. From what I had seen on the news, homeless people seemed to have free rein in northwest Washington.

Just as I eased out of my parking spot, a black and white flash caught my eye, and I turned to see a marked police car speeding into the parking lot. 

“Well, I’ll be jiggered,” I remarked to myself. “They did take me seriously.” 

Then to my even greater surprise, I saw several more marked and unmarked law enforcement SUVs converge in the general area. At least six cars cruised around the surrounding blocks, and spotlights shined into dark shadows around the edges of the parking areas. 

By the time I positioned my rig directly under a bright pole light with no other vehicles nearby, several of the cops had obviously found someone because red and blue strobes lit up the trees and street signs at the far end of the vacant lot near my earlier parking spot. 

Trees and shadows prevented my seeing any of the action, but for the next half hour, they were busy over there with something. 

That’s when the jitters started really hitting me. Clearly, there was more afoot here than a drug addict or homeless person bothering a trucker. The response time had barely been 60 seconds, and the sheer number of responding cars led me to believe there was a backstory I didn’t know about. 

Shaking off the heebie-jeebies with a nervous laugh, I shut the truck down and crawled back into the sleeper. After double checking the locks, I pulled up the blankets and tried to calm my heart rate. Morning would come soon enough. 

Despite my best efforts at slow breathing and uncurling my toes one at a time, it was nearly an hour before my heart rate seemed ready for slumber.

“Ally! Ally! Stop trying to hide. Get over here!” The bellowing voice cut through the still night and right into my drifting-off-to-sleep thoughts.

For what seemed like the hundredth time, my eyes flew open and my head lifted from the pillow. 

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I whispered to myself as I sat up and took a careful look out my windows. 

The overwhelming police presence of an hour before was nowhere to be seen, but marching across the parking lot in a beeline came the fellow from earlier. 

This time, he was really looking my truck over, and his trajectory was going to lead him right past my front bumper. I decided I wasn’t going to give any impression the truck was occupied unless he tried boarding it. 

To my relief, the guy marched right on past without slowing down, and his calls went unanswered. 

Sitting there in the darkened cab, I gave up on the idea of sleep. By now, I wasn’t sure I’d ever sleep. I fetched my Kindle, found a good book, and began to read. 

About the time the cowboy in the story caught up to the rustlers, I heard a faint yell. Looking up, I shook my head in disbelief. Here came the town crier, as I was beginning to call him, yelling at the top of his lungs.

I can’t print what he was saying, but suffice it to say he was fairly peeling the paint off the buildings and parked vehicles. Had I not been hauling an oversized load, I would have hit the road for better parking. As it was, I decided I was going to idle the truck the rest of the night, short as it was. 

Clearly, silent night never happened in this part of the world. 

Far too soon, 6 a.m. arrived, and I rubbed my reddened eyes awake as I got dressed. Two hours of sleep were not enough to stifle the yawns that threatened to split my head in half. 

As I walked around my truck in the early dawn doing my pre-trip inspection, I saw one of the marker lights on the rear of my truck was broken. I was certain that light had been fine the day before. Was this where the girl had been hiding earlier when my cameras would not pick her up? 

Just then, my scheduled pilot cars pulled up. 

“Hey, what happened to your light?” Marge asked from her car as she rolled the window down. “Looks like somebody hit it with a hammer.”

Shaking my head, I walked over to her window. “You wouldn’t believe what happened here last night.”

Briefly, I recounted the night’s adventures to Marge and Ralph, the second pilot car driver.

“Oh, my goodness!” Marge replied. “Do you know there has been a rash of truckers getting robbed and beat up along I5 in the last year? Matter of fact, a few guys were even killed in Oregon.” 

Seeing my shock, she continued, “Cops were starting to talk about a serial killer for a bit there.”

A furry little shiver scampered up and back down my spine. Shaking my head, I breathed a prayer of thanks to God for keeping me safe. Give me bears and lions any day. This country boy just isn’t cut out for city life. 

Author’s note: I have no idea what was going on that night, and I probably never will. The responding officers never spoke with me, so I didn’t hear what they found or suspected. 

Suffice it to say that I trusted my gut, and although I can’t prove it, I’m fairly certain I escaped serious injury or death by staying inside the cab that night. 

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