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What a Long, Strange Trip Its Been

By on July 1, 2017
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On the Road with a Humongous Heavy-Hauler

Truckin’ got my chips cashed in
Keep truckin’ like the doodah man
Together, more or less in line
Just keep truckin’ on
Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me
What a long, strange trip it’s been

–“Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead 1970 “American Beauty” Album

In 1997, the United States Library of Congress recognized Truckin’ as a national treasure. Written by band members Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, and lyricist Robert Hunter, the hit song molds classic Grateful Dead rhythms and instrumentation. Not surprisingly, Truckin’ has achieved widespread cultural use during the years since the song’s original release.

As heavy-haul specialists, Paul Sims and his wife, Jill, identify with the song’s climactic refrain, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” It’s even neatly lettered on the backside of Paul’s Kenworth Wide T800 cab. There’s plenty of “Wide Load” heavy-haul truckers traversing North America every day. Those who are cleared to travel the Interstate system are pretty much like other OTR trucks and drivers. The really heavy-haul specialists and their unusual cargo rarely see the Interstate on their outbound journeys. This is a story about them.

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“I started driving a 10-wheeler on a family friend’s farm when I was 15,” said Paul Sims. “Shortly after an 18-wheeler was added, I begged and begged for a chance to drive it until the family friend finally relented. One day, he took me out to a field about 15 miles from town and turned me loose with the truck and a full load of corn. His only instructions were don’t get stuck and be sure to have the truck back home before the forecasted afternoon thunderstorms moved in.”

A few years later, after determining that college wasn’t in the cards, Paul parlayed his early trucking experience into a job with Halliburton running supplies in the West Texas oil fields. During 1990, that led to his first job in heavy haul with a diversified company, and he never looked back. When that company ceased operations in early 2002, Paul signed on with Combined Transport based in Central Point, Oregon. Continuing his love for heavy haul, he specializes in transformer delivery, and also handles some construction machinery and components for wind farm construction.

Jill was very familiar with the trucking industry, based on her father’s career in sales with Yellow and Roadway. She met Paul through mutual friends and was soon intrigued by the prospect of becoming a heavy-haul escort. When Combined needed escorts, marriage paved the way for Jill to team up with Paul, personally and professionally. She eventually started Dead Head Heavy Haul Support and took on the role of the front escort. They operate from a two-acre home base a few miles outside of West Terre Haute, Indiana.

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Over on All Counts

The 95,000-pound T800 and Trail King 3-3-3 trailer pose a striking over-width, over-length and over-weight 12-axle, 46-tire profile. Total length is 130-ft., 8-in. The 10-year-old trailer consists of a jeep, the haul deck and a non-steerable booster. The T800 requires the wide front profile to accommodate a larger radiator for increased cooling capacity. The engine is a 550 hp Cummins ISX, connected to an 18-speed Eaton transmission and a 2-speed (4:11 and 5:60) Eaton axle.

The deck has a 30-ft. long, 8.5-ft wide well for transformer hauls. When a transformer fits within the well, the unit sits 11 inches off the ground. When transformer width is too wide for the well, large high-strength plastic blocks are used to support the load. The 128,000-lb. transformer pictured in this story sits on blocks 24 inches off the ground. The unit is 13-ft. wide with the peripherals on the right side and 17-ft. high. It’s every move tracked by an attached GPS, this unit was headed from a Wisconsin manufacturer to a Texas customer.

Challenging Logistics

As you can easily imagine, outbound route planning is complex. Taller transformers can’t be routed on the Interstate system due to limits on bridge clearances. That means a meandering network of state and county roads must be carefully planned and even more carefully navigated to travel from pickup point A to delivery destination B. Behind-the-scenes logistics require permitting from every state along the route. Each state dictates the exact routes that must be traveled, authorized hours, when police need to be engaged, and any special requirements.

Rosa Learn is the head of Combined Transport’s permit department. She along with Janette, the receptionist, talk with Paul Sims more than anyone else in the Central Point headquarters. Rosa coordinates the travel plans and makes the preliminary arrangements for each trip. Most states only allow daytime running. Others require night running, when traffic congestion is lowest. Limited daytime travel hours in the dead of winter are another limiting factor. A lack of cooperation by some states can lengthen any given trip by several days and hundreds of miles. Daily stopping points are preferred at previously identified safe locations. That may require ending a day early, if no known parking spots have been identified along the authorized route. Parking on the shoulder of a road is only used as a last resort.

 

Value of Experienced Escorts

With 10 years of experience, Jill Sims has mastered the art of being the lead escort. Down days waiting for a load or when travel is forbidden are frequently used for the preparation of physical route surveys, particularly when a route is new or unfamiliar. These scouting trips have proven to be invaluable, since unwelcome surprises can appear almost anywhere along even the most familiar, frequently traveled routes. States are not liable for any clearances on the routes they designate.

trip3Obstacles you would never even think about in the typical OTR rig can cause unwanted headaches. When executing a forced turnaround is impossible because of the 130-ft length, the only alternative is a long-distance backup, sometimes for several miles. Circumventing obstacles that are physically impossible to navigate include elevated rail crossings, unexpected low bridges, or super-tight corners and cloverleaves. Jill runs about a mile, sometimes more, ahead of Paul. The rear escort is only a couple of pickup lengths behind the trailer.

“A big part of my job is using the clearance pole mounted on the front corner of my pickup to hit things, so Paul doesn’t,” said Jill. “An angled mirror on my dash provides a clear view to the tip of the pole. I can see, hear and feel whenever I encounter anything that will be a problem. In addition to bridges and railroad overpasses, that may include low-hanging traffic signals, arched lighting, wires, signs and tree limbs. Lane closures, construction zones and vehicles parked along shoulders are other potential obstacles. In situations where trailer ground clearance is a problem, Paul can hydraulically raise the front about three or four inches and can override the rear air-ride by a couple of inches.

“The top of each transformer has tubular PVC sliders that act like reverse skis to elevate movable objects. Or we use a pole to manually lift an infringing object to avoid any damage. Bucket trucks and utility specialists are called in to handle anything we can’t. Permits identify where and when local police must be engaged. Rosa handles advance notification, and we provide an early warning as we approach a given jurisdiction. Many times, they add an extra measure of visibility and safety. It takes time to learn the ropes when you start being an escort. Staying alert and paying close attention are critical to safely hauling an oversized load and avoiding any damage. It’s great to be on the road with Paul, and being the advance eyes and ears so critical to maintaining a schedule.”

Patience, Patience, Patience

“When we’re able to run the I-system and stop at travel centers on empty returns, many OTR drivers ask me what it’s like to be engaged in heavy haul,” said Paul. “I tell them it’s a lot different than running general freight. They need to understand that being on the road for weeks or even months without a home visit is not unusual. Select an excellent company like Combined Transport that has a solid commitment to heavy haul. Start on the smaller rigs, and be prepared to work your way up the tonnage, axle and freight-value ladders. Combined Transport has been so good to work for; I wish I had joined them earlier. All three generations have treated us like family.

“Heavy haul is certainly not a job every professional driver would enjoy,” Paul continues. “By it’s very nature, there is a fair amount of downtime waiting to be loaded, having all of the information required for permitting, clearance to run on holidays and weekends, hitting acceptable parking spots, encountering lots of obstacles, and just slow going in general. Unloading requires careful coordination with a heavy crane firm selected by the transformer customer. If patience is a virtue in everyday truck driving, long haul drivers and escorts need an incredible amount. That and placing safety at the top of your priority list are necessary attributes to survive.”

As a testament to his dedication, Paul is the first Combined Transport heavy-haul driver to log 1,000,000 continuous, over-size miles. That’s an incredible accomplishment, considering some days the miles driven are relatively low, and other days the wheels aren’t turning at all. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Paul hit 2,000,000 miles before it occurs to him that he has accomplished all he can in heavy haul. He likes to say there is nothing monotonous about heavy haul. Every day is a new adventure. “Paul Sims is one of our best drivers,” said company president Mike Card. “We can always count on him to do whatever it takes to safely move any load.”

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When 2 Wheels Replace 46

Although usually separated by long intervals on the road, home time can also be longer than normal waiting for the next load to be ready and its logistics to be resolved. Paul Sims has always been a Harley-Davidson guy, and he and Jill enjoy the freedom of taking to Indiana’s roads on two wheels. These days, that could be on a ’09 Street Glide, an ’02 Panzer or a ’57 Panhead. When you consider everything that happens in the business of heavy hauling, it’s easy to see why Paul and Jill can sit back and say, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

PERSONAL RECORDS

6 longest continuous time in months away from home

22  width in feet of widest heavy-haul cargo

53 days on the road Pocatello, ID to Boston, MA

4,000+  miles required for San Francisco to Boston trip

146,000 lbs.   heaviest transformer hauled

About Road King

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