Adventures from the Highway – Stephen Helmes

The next time you’re talking to a truck driver who is telling you some tall tale about what he encountered one dark morning at 2 a.m. while driving some lonely road in Mississippi, you may want to rethink what he said before walking away and rolling your eyes. His eyes may be excited and bloodshot as he talks, his whiskers may be three days in need of a shave, and he may have the stare of a lunatic, someone who you wouldn’t turn your back on if he were a stranger rather than your Uncle Carl, but he may also be telling you the truth. This man spends long hours traveling hundreds of miles every day of the week.

day traffic, picture by Stephen Helmes

Many people who drive back and forth to work each day and make occasional stops by the local supermarket may do well to find their doctor’s office with a GPS or Google Maps.  There are also those who consider themselves to be knowledgeable drivers, spending an hour or two on the highways every day during the week. Indeed, they may very well be good drivers and know all the main and back roads for a hundred mile radius. They may even consider those roads their stomping grounds. But it can’t compare to those who spend their lives on the road, and more so in eighteen-wheelers. They go places far, far away and sometimes end up in predicaments where they have to stop and figure ways out how to get back on their normal track.

It doesn’t matter if this wild-eyed man drives for a well-known company or if he is an independent owner operator. After only two years behind the wheel of one of these big rigs, he can tell you about every drawbridge, every railroad crossing, and every pothole on the highways that stretch all across our great country. Granted, if he is telling you about the dog he saw last week, the one who chased after a pack of ducks, sprouted wings, and flew after them when they hit the skies to make their getaway, you may want to question what he has been taking to keep himself awake on those long journeys. But if he is telling you about something that could possibly happen in a million years, listen up. It may not be a tall tale after all. This man has been around. He’s seen things over the road that only a handful of average drivers are lucky, or unlucky, enough to encounter.

fingers playing guitar, wikimedia commons

I am a truck driver, but that’s not all I do. When someone asks me what I do, musician and author escape my lips before anything else because that’s where my heart is. I developed a true love for music at a very young age because my brother was older than me by seven years. While he was at school learning to read and write, I was in his room, still too young to go to school, playing his record player, listening to albums with labels that I couldn’t read but knew who they were simply because I had them memorized.  By age nine, I was learning to play the guitar. I started toughening my fingers, learning how to hold the chords, and pick out my favorite songs by ear.

By the time I was old enough to walk into a bar, I was performing in them. Along with a friend, we created a rock band and, over the years, played nearly all of the main venues that trailed from Atlanta, Georgia, to Chattanooga, Tennessee. We’ve spent the past twenty-five years rocking these places, and today, we have slowed a bit, but we still play when we can. Being the member of a band for that long of a period, playing as many venues and parties that we have played, is another occupation much like that of a truck driver. You see and experience things that are so unbelievable that you sometimes keep them to yourself in fear that someone will think you are full of your own hype.

Writing came to me later in life, much later. In fact, I was in my thirties the first time I sat down and created my first real story from beginning to end. I had always loved movies and stories, but writing turned out to be a talent that I didn’t realize I had until I finally sat down and really gave it a chance. Today, I have two published books, Nightly Visits and From 12 to 6 (More Nightly Visits), and I am working on two more as we speak. I have ideas for many others that will come after those two are completed, so I plan to do this for as long as my fingers are able to tap the keyboard and my mind is able to create. Sadly, like being a musician, writing takes just a little more than the talent to pull a great story out of mid-air and put it into the pages of a book. There is an element of luck involved in making it big like Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, and Stephen King. As for those of us who have not run across that little stream of luck just yet, we have to eat too, and that means hanging on to our day jobs.

I decided to take the course and get my CDL in 2011. I figured a truck driving job, in time, would allow me the flexibility I would need in order to make a decent living over the road while still playing shows with the band when I came home. Of course, writing was a much easier task. The stories played themselves out like movies in my head while I was driving, then as soon as the truck stopped, after a bite to eat and a shower, I’d finish my day with my laptop, typing it all out.

truck driver, pixabay

It didn’t take long to learn the first lessons of truck driving. My first week on the road taught me that it’s not a job for everybody. I started out driving for Werner Enterprises. It was a company willing to take in fresh drivers and allow them to get their feet wet. After only a week on the road, I found out how much of a homebody I really was. Out for three weeks, ended up only God knows where, and I came home for just three days. That gave me just enough time to sleep in one day, restock the cabinets in my truck, do my laundry, and go back on the road for another three weeks of heading who knew where. That was my schedule.

The real truck drivers love it. They will tell you there is nowhere they’d rather be than out seeing God’s country, from Miami to Allagash, to Seattle, down to San Diego. I was so homesick that it almost made me literally and physically, in the pit of my stomach, sick. I was seeing some beautiful places that otherwise I would never have the privilege of seeing, but at the same time, all I wanted to do was go home, sit in my own living room, and watch a movie that I wanted to see rather than sit in a trucker’s lounge with men I’d never met, some laughing and telling their tales while others were slumped in their seats, asleep and drooling, dead to the world around them.

my work truck, picture by Stephen Helmes

Today that over-the-road time is paying off. I am blessed with the privilege of driving a few hours a night for the U.S. Postal Service then going home for the rest of the day. The mailman brings you the mail every day. Well, somebody has to take that mail to him. That’s my job. I like to tell people that I am the mailman’s mailman.

My night is simple. I wake up at 1:55 a.m. and leave my driveway by 2:30. At 3:00, I am inspecting my truck for the run, and by 3:15, I am backed into a distribution center, next to the Sarasota airport, loading the mail. I deliver to two cities, Clearwater Beach and Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, then I turn my truck around and go home. Cut-and-dried, that’s pretty much my schedule every day.  I’ve been on this job now for nearly three years, hardly a veteran, but long enough that I know these roads like that back of my hand, and I have plenty my own stories to tell.

During my first year driving the mail, I saw far more than my share. I had a series of Fridays, three out of four in a row, back from September 11 until October 2, 2015, where I witnessed some crazy things.

Friday, September 11, a small airplane made an emergency landing on Highway 301 due to engine trouble. This plane landed on the intersection where I park my truck each day when I finish the mail route, and it came down within a minute of when I was parking.

Friday, September 18, a pedestrian was hit and killed by an eighteen-wheeler on Highway 301, just two miles north of where the plane landed a week earlier. Again, on returning from my route, I saw the aftermath. The body was still lying on the side of the highway, covered by a sheet, but the wind had blown it back and the group of troopers chatting about twenty yards away didn’t know it. I saw the poor man lying there in all his glory, stiff on his back and toes pointed to the sky! I have seen two other bodies that had been run over since, it happens a lot down here, but that was my first.

Nothing happened on the following Friday, September 25th, but there was more to come on the following Friday!

Atlas V launch, wikimedia commons

Friday, October 2, NASA launches Atlas V. I didn’t know what Atlas V was; I had never heard of it! It was early morning, still dark, and I was driving over the Sunshine Skyway, a five-mile stretch of I-275 that crosses right through the center of the Tampa Bay waters. I was jamming to some eighty’s tunes, tapping the steering wheel when I casually took a glance out to my left. It was right outside my window, high in space, but right there, clear as clear can be, a meteor, and it was coming straight at us! My heart skipped two beats. Seconds later, there was an explosion! I couldn’t hear it, but I sure saw it! The meteor had hit the earth’s atmosphere and it disintegrated, right before my eyes! Nothing was left of this thing but two rings of smoke in the sky high above the water.

Needless to say, I was relieved when I saw that we weren’t going to be killed by that thing. I was even more relieved about an hour later when I was having breakfast at Cracker Barrel, and overheard people talking about the rocket that was launched that morning. Turned out it wasn’t a meteor that I saw. It was Atlas V, and it didn’t explode when it hit the earth’s atmosphere. It released its boosters, or whatever you call them, and they were what made those rings of smoke in the sky.

view from Sunshine Skyway Bridge, picture by Stephen Helmes

There are also plenty of stories that come with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge that I travel twice a day, six days a week.  It was one morning at 4, not much traffic out yet. I was on I-275, about half of a mile behind another car which was already heading up the climb to the highest point of the Skyway. When it reached the top, 430 feet up, its brake lights came on. I knew what was happening. When I reached the top, about thirty seconds later, the car was abandoned, driver’s door open, lights still on, engine still running, no driver to be found, and nowhere to go but over the rail and down to the deep waters of Tampa Bay.

In the spring of 2015, another postal truck driver was caught on that same bridge in a waterspout. The twister played with the semi like it was a toy for a few seconds, ripping the trailer open and sending all the mail out into Tampa Bay. The driver wasn’t hurt, but he came out with a new story to tell.

Not every day comes with an adventure to tell, but as soon as you drive a few days and get your mind settled from the last event, a new event will light that fire back up. So next time you hear a truck driver telling his super adrenalized stories, take a moment and thank him. Without our great truck drivers out there on the highways day after day, risking their lives and experiencing some unbelievable sights, we wouldn’t have all that we have today.

Amazon Links:
Nightly Visits
From 12 to 6 (More Nightly Visits)

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