I glanced at the pictures and it scared me half to death. That beastly thing called a trailer looked more like terror on wheels.
What is a ’97 Eager Beaver anyway – didn’t look very eager to me. More like a dead skunk left to rot.
It would be a long holiday weekend. Americans from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Golden State were gathering with friends, firing up the grill and celebrating the precursor of long summer days and lasting sunshine.
Overzealous holiday-goers closed up shop by midweek hitting the road, leaving me with no loads to book. I would be grounded for days – might as well crack open a cold one with the rest of them.
Fortunately, after days of searching, I found something that piqued my attention.
“Can you pick her up Tuesday,” the buyer asked? “No one will be at the yard for the next few days.”
“Perhaps, gotta check her out first. Is she DOT-worthy?”
“Well from the pics we got, she’s probably not. But if you get stopped, just tell the trooper that you’re delivering the trailer and not putting any load on it,” he assured me.
I waited till the Memorial Day weekend traffic had abated the next day to drive through the relentless rush-hour congestion to Ashland, VA, a small town just north of Richmond. The trailer rested in a distant field that had not seen the dull blade of a mower in weeks maybe months. As I approached with caution, the Eager Beaver looked weary and worn like death warmed over. Wild violet weeds had taken hold of the beast. A woeful mound of dirt and rocks embedded on the rusty steel frame could easily bury my feet ankle deep.
[ Image: Eagle Beaver Trailer.jpeg ]
1997 Eagle Beaver trailer in Ashland, VA
And the gooseneck kingpin leaned over like a dying geese, hadn’t seen the light of day in years. Now I was tasked to resurrect her to a life on the road.
“Call for a forklift,” the shipper bellowed. Allen, the old timer redneck had been in the business since the day trucking became deregulated. He had seen and experienced just about everything that could possibly happen, good and bad, and he wanted this rusty relic towed 1,500 miles to the middle of Texas, and he wanted it there with no repairs, no breakdowns, wrapped neatly in lace with a bow on top.
I summoned for help. The shipper dispatched a 4,000 lb forklift through the dusty fields which raised the gooseneck high and dry enabling me to back down underneath it and hitch up Then I made my way out of the twisty pig-trails and undivided byways of southern Virginia raising lifeless Lazarus out of the trailer tomb.
It was a long, monotonous drive on US 7. The thought of pulling a prehistoric iron dinosaur halfway cross country gave me the chills.
A couple hours later while cruising on Interstate 81, a dramatic bang resembling a distinctive blast of a shotgun. My heart skipped a beat, but I kept on pushing. Not now…It was way too early to break course. I would press on for another hour until the sun had set restlessly at a Love’s in Staunton to confirm that the rear tire was indeed flat and I would be spending the night here.
I texted Allen that I would have to change out the tire and the cheapest one available at the truckstop was a $500 Bridgestone.
Allen raised hell. ” Just raise the axle!” he snapped back. The old timer didn’t wanna budge a nickel. He was paying me $2,000 for this eventful excursion, and at a rate of $1.33 per mile, his price was way below market rate.
“Can’t do that. The axle doesn’t move.” As long as it’s touching ground, I have to change it. Don’t want the inner tire to blow or get stopped by a trooper and get a ticket and points. It was way too early on this trip for things to start breaking down.
I-81 follows the spine of the Appalachian Mountains like a slipped rib. The drive in some stretches can be challenging to some and down right frustrating to others.
“Heck, it’s not all that bad,” says some truckers. I’ll take 81 over 95 any day. Hills are better than crazy suburbia drivers in their souped-up SUVS and luxury sports cars, ” I once heard at a TA grapevine.
* * *
When I made it to Memphis, the hometown of B.B. King and the King himself, I decided it was the perfect time to escape the confines of my truck and do some exploring in Grind City, USA.
It was beyond belief that I found a truck stop within city proper. A buck and three quarters was all it took to catch the MATA (Memphis Area Transit Authority) to downtown and before I knew it I was riding a vintage trolley on the Madison line through historic downtown. These trolleys, nearly a century old, were delivered from Australia and its service had just been restored after a couple engine fires in 2013 and 2014. Thankfully, there were no serious injuries among passengers or operators, but both trolleys were burned beyond repair.
I was excited to be here – hadn’t been to Memphis since my early 20’s and though the music is just as lively and full of soul, much of the city has changed. Back then, most folks who flocked to Memphis came to see Graceland. Today, there are more choices. Just a short walk from downtown is an epic museum showcasing the Civil Rights Movement. A lot of focus and energy have been put into this museum to recreate the Lorraine Hotel when Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Inside, the room is the same condition on that fateful day, right down to the way the bed was made and there were dirty dishes from a meal that Dr. King ate minutes earlier. There’s a huge wreath placed on the railing outside and two vintage vehicles parked outside. The entire setting was very sobering and moving. If time is tight, skip Graceland and visit the Civil Rights Museum to learn the true history and protracted struggle for freedom of our Nation.
Beale Street is another place one must make a pilgrimage to. After walking half-a-mile and soaking the carnival-like atmosphere, I became a bit famished so I managed to grab a slider at Dyer’s – not your typical grass-fed gourmet burger with mounds of fixings, but a thin Southern patty deep-fried in 100-year old grease.
Even though it looks like it’s ready for the bottom of the barrel, the grease is so highly treasured that it was escorted by an armored truck when the venue relocated to Beale St. And the grease is strained to remove any contaminants and impurities, everyday since 1912.
A half pound of raw ground beef is held on the cutting board under a spatula which s whacked a few times with a heavy hammer, flattening the meat into a semi-compressed patty at least four inches wide. Then the patty is submerged into a deep, black skillet full of bubbling-hot grease. It’s almost the same principal as a cast iron skillet. The skillet absorbs savory flavors over the years, and you can taste it in the food. As amazing as the burger was, the fries also garnered much praise. The fries are also submerged in old grease, albeit not the same batch. It’s the grease that gives the spatula-flattened burger a consummately juicy interior while it develops a crusty exterior.
After consuming my burger with loads of pickles, onions and mustard, I was ready for some Memphis nightlife. Found a bar named after the 2000 musical comedy Coyote Ugly replete with dancing bartenders wearing scanty outfits and cowboy boots. The best place to sit is at the bar, and that’s where you get the best close-up views of the lovely Coyotes. Not only do you get to interact with the Coyotes, you might get smacked wickedly or a dancing barmaid might pour 80 proof Jack Daniels down your throat.
If you feel the urge, you can climb up on the bar and join them. A patron next to me bought his lucky friend a body shot. Salt and tequila was poured on the dancers belly and then the customer slurps from her navel and then eats the lime out of the mouth of the Coyote while the raucous crowd cheers him on. Without missing a beat, the Coyote then towels off her belly and gets ready for the next sacrificial victim.
The whole ordeal is a huge tourist trap, but for Memphis standards, it’s pretty lame, about on par with the madness of Bourbon Street.
Women are empowered at the infamous saloon. They get in for free and they are encouraged to join the Coyotes and goad their husbands and boyfriends to become the next casualty.
As the night wore on, I found myself spending about 60 bucks for 2 shots: 3 cocktails and 2 beers. Should have gotten the body shot instead. I think it would have been more enjoyable.
Had a great time, people wandering the street were easily approachable. And just like the French Quarter, you could talk to anyone here. I actually made new friends, many who surely won’t remember my names the next day, but tomorrow was a world away.
And finally, the clock struck 12 and fatigue got the best of me. It was time to turn in in and dream about more coyotes and 100-year old grease. A $12 uber ride and 15 minutes later I was tucked comfortably away in my cab-side comforter. It was great to see Memphis on a dime without having to shell out a couple hundred for a hotel.
The next day, I was determined to visit this Chinese carryout by the Airport appropriately called Wok ‘n’ Roll. I knew it was gonna be tough to enter and egress and I apparently wasn’t ready for what lay ahead.
Actually I had no problem pulling in, though the bottom of my trailer scraped the concrete hard like a chisel. But pulling out was when I got stuck — my truck on Winchester Ave, my trailer still sitting haplessly in the pockmarked parking lot like a forgotten step child.
It’s times like these that I learned not to panic. People rushing home for the weekend were honking, pointing fingers and glaring angrily.
I coolly unhitched my trailer, pulled back into the parking lot and waited. Didn’t even need to lift up my phone to search for a tow truck on google.
Within minutes a couple of trucks pulled into the lot. In these parts of Tennessee, there are more wreckers than you can shake a stick at.
And one easily pulled me out for a couple hundred Benjamins – always carry cash handy.
[ Image: Towing Eagle Beaver in Memphis, TN.png ]
Eagle Beaver getting towed back into parking lot
After a night that I hope I would never forget, I was finally happy to get out of Dodge. The I-40 Bridge linking Tennessee and Arkansas was old, decrepit and was structurally deficient. And the road to Little Rock was rough, bumpy and in many places congested. And the Big Rock was where I shut Big Red down for the night. At the local Walmart, I heard that the Arkansas River was seriously rising and reaching crest in a couple of days.
Heavy snowfall followed by relentless rainfall during the year had caused the Arkansas River to swell like a bloated whale. The River had not seen water this high in a generation and it was threatening to get much worse.
[ Image: Arkansas River Flooding.jpeg ]
The Arkansas River swelling over in Little Rock, July 2019
I posted a note on Twitter to see if anyone needed use of my truck and gooseneck trailer.
After no takers, I decided to press on a couple hours south to Texarkana, a town with a unique name that appropriately straddles two state lines just like KC does with Missouri and Kansas.
Considered one of Texas’ most dangerous cities, it had three Superfund sites since the 70’s earning its moniker “Toxicana, USA,” When Harvey blew through several years ago, toxic waste was washed up creating a deadly brew.
Knowing this and hearing the chilling tales of serial killers on the large, I would rather stay in my truck than to explore the town that dreaded sundown.
That standing lined up with my initial impression until I arbitrarily stumbled into Fat Jack’s, located on State Line Avenue running right through two college rivals: Arkansas and Texas. Even though this local favorite has been feeding and entertaining Texarkanans for decades, it wasn’t listed on Google maps. That didn’t matter to locals, Fat Jack’s was a local legend and well-known with out-of-towners.
As soon as I walked through the main entrance I was greeted by a cloud of smoke that drifted up to the corrugated metal ceiling. Standing in front of me, a large, burly man with the stature of a linebacker named Billy Bob took my ID card and raised five fingers.
“There’s a cover tonight – we have a band from Memphis.”
[ Image: Fat Jack’s .png ]
Fat Jack’s Texarkana, Arkansas
The covered patio was decorated wall-to-wall with local memorabilia. A couple guys and gals in blue jeans and ball caps were busy playing pool. Although I wasn’t dressed for the occasion, I suddenly felt warm and cozy – surrounded by a dozen new friends who are happy to drink a toast with you or let you bum a cigarette for a joke.
And the bar serves more than comfort food. It’s an oyster bar with a twist of Cajun, catering to locals and passer-bys driving south from Memphis or north from Dallas who heard it through the grapevine and passed it on for generations.
They love the Arkansas Razor Backs and cheer them during every game. Even college baseball is watched religiously like it mattered. And they pay homage to their alma mater with a large boar head greeting loyal fans clad in red and cardinal.
I approached the bar – one side saying “Go Hogs”, the other saying “Hook Em’ Horns”
“What’s good here?” I asked.
“We’re known for our oysters, crawfish and jambalaya,” said Joseph, a friendly bartender who offered a warm handshake.
“How are the gator tots?”
“They’re the Bomb – If you like seafood, you should try the trifecta: shrimp, oysters and gator?”
I sat down, my table was weathered and people over the years had written on them with sharpies. I continued to enjoy my drink while soaking in the atmosphere. A baseball game played in the background. A young couple in the booth across from me were enjoying their Po’boys while chain smoking like rockstars. An older couple were playing foosball – this bar game sure ain’t what it used to be as I watched with passive amusement.
“Been coming here 30 years. This place is truly a borderline landmark! I’ve met people from clear across the US that if I mention I’ve been to Texarkana, they mention Fat Jack’s.”
“I see. The bathrooms need some attention but the service and hospitality are beyond reproach,” I added.
“But you gotta watch out for these alkies. A few years ago a Texas man chased and rammed a female’s car on State Line Ave after she turned down his advances.
And there have been more bar fights here than KOs by Floyd Mayweather. You better keep your head on a swivel tonight.”
I thanked the couple for their advice and made a mental note not to overindulge.
Before long, the smell of fresh jambalaya hit me right in my nostalgia, bringing back drunken moments on Bourbon Street. Then as my dishes arrived, I gleefully devoured my meal – pan fried and searing – the oysters were lightly breaded and juicy. And the morsels of gator meat were tender and chewy – a perfect combination.
My dirty rice was brimming with fresh sausages and the slow cooked baked beans simmered in its juices – it was simply the most amazing Cajun casserole I had outside of the Big Easy.
Black and White and photos of life and living in the heartland adorned the walls. Nascar memorabilia was displayed with pride. A collage of Jack Mills, aka Fat Jack plastered another wall. I took a moment to read his obituary:
Jack Mills skill on the gridiron led him to Texarkana, where he played for the Texarkana Titans, a semi-pro team. An injury cut short his football career and spurred him to work toward a dream he’d had since childhood opening his own bar. He wanted a New Orleans-style neighborhood establishment, where patrons could enjoy oysters and gumbo, cold beer and good conversation. He achieved that dream when Fat Jack’s opened on Feb. 6, 1985. The sports bar and restaurant quickly became the most popular watering hole in town, drawing a crowd from all walks of life, from professionals to blue-collar workers. They all felt at home and they all came back. And Jack was there every day, making everyone feel welcome, making everyone feel like they were family.
At the bar, both Shiner Bock and Diamond Beer were readily available on the tap and overflowing in frosty 25 oz beer mugs. There was a Country Western band performing. The artist picked his Gibson acoustic strings like he was Johnny Cash reborn. His voice had the sweet, scratchy sound of Hank Williams.
I could pat myself on the back for giving Jack’s a shot. I was treated to southern hospitality at its finest. A hidden gem practically straddling the state line that every road tripper should patronize.
My palate was content and I was soundly in my elements. Once again, I learned not to judge a town by first impressions. There is much life after sundown in Texarkana and as I sipped my Shiner chased down with a shot of hickory smoked whiskey, there was nothing better than the rhythmic sound from a honky tonk strumming away.
* * *
I was glad I got some rest because the very next day, the alarms started screeching like general quarters. Apparently my pipes were dirty and clogged causing Big Red to initiate a Level 1 alarm like a blasted sonic alert. This happened a couple of times during the week, and just like that nagging sore tooth, I had to get it checked out.
As soon as the alarm sounds, I had to find a safe place to pull over and do a Parked Regen (regeneration).
But on I-40, there were limited places I could safely pull over. Stopping on the shoulder of the narrow highway was not a safe option. Sometimes on highway cruising, the system would do a regen on its own. The key was to drive at a rapid speed and avoid stop and go, hoping that the steady combustion will burn out all the excess soot from the DPF (Diesel Particulate Filter).
If I didn’t stop and do a Parked Regen, the alarm would progress to Level II and subsequently to Level III. Once you reach Level IV, you are beyond the reach of a Parked Regen. The only thing you would be able to do is take it to an International dealership to get them to a Forced Regen which will reset the alarm. The engine could also derate, so hopefully, you don’t lose power getting there.
Luckily, I arrived in Texas without having to do too many regens or get towed out of any parking lots. The Lone Star State is a favorite place for truckers, where driving 70-75 mph is the norm and the coops are usually closed.
Finally, after seven days on the road, I delivered the trailer, and Alan wrote me a big fat check – I surely like CODs (Cash on Deliveries). No invoices, no waiting for the mail, no calling the broker. I then headed straight to Dallas to enjoy the sights. Since I’m a big fan of sports, albeit a Cowboy antagonist, I visited Texas Live! In Arlington.
The venue is a sprawling entertainment center, but easy to navigate. It has a 90-foot screen of TV’s spanning across an entire wall showing baseball, old football games, soccer, Big 3 basketball, you name it. When the Rangers, Cowboys, Stars or Mavericks are playing, the place would be packed and you would have to pay a premium for parking.
[ Image: Texas Live! Arlington.png ]
Texas Live! In Arlington, TX
The assortment of places to eat, drink and hangout are just endless at Live. The restaurants and bars — Pudge’s Pizza, Tequila Sheela Bar, Lockhart Smoke House, Arlington Sports & Social, Guy Fieri’s Taco Joint, PBR Cowboy Bar and Miller Tavern — surround this “Live Arena” on two stories, with plenty of clear, open views of the action.
I had the nachos at Lockhart Smoke House which could have fed a family of 4. They were super delicious, full of flavor and ultimate spicy. I could literally spend my entire week here, but there was work to be done and plenty of loads to pull. And the Arkansas River was flooding at historic levels summoning for help. Several levees were breached, thousands of homes were affected and many roads were shut down.
The next day, I booked a FEMA load from Fort Worth to Little Rock. It was a trailer full of relief supplies. The government was setting up a FEMA field office at Camp Joseph Robinson, a National Guard base in North of town.
[ Image: Pulling FEMA trailer from Ft Worth to Little Rock.png ]
Dlivering FEMA trailer to Little Rock, AR
Once I arrived in Little Rock, I decided to take Big Red to the shop to fix my Parked Regen issue. This was an opportune time to make the repair, since it was Roadside Inspection Week, a dreaded 72 hour marathon of nationwide multi-agency inspections . Additionally, there were no loads coming out of Little Rock. Couldn’t think of a better time to stop at the shop.
The next day I heard the sad prognosis. I was in dire need of a new EGR cooler and EGR valve. The Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) serves to channel exhaust gases back to the combustion chamber to reduce the amount of NOx (Nitrous Oxide). But the exhaust gases are steamy hot and has to be cooled before getting recirculated – that’s why we need a valve and cooler.
International is notorious for these emissions issues. That’s because they elected not to use Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) and Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) to meet the 2010 NOx emissions standard. Without the use of urea, the EGR and DPF are not enough to reduce emissions and the DPF would clog up requiring many bothersome Parked Regens.
“Whoa, I’m putting soot into my combustion chamber? How does that affect my engine?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes the EGR reduces Nitrous Oxide through lowering the oxygen concentration in the combustion chamber, as well as through heat absorption,” answered Luke, my tech, who rattled off parts like they were names of his nieces and nephews.
The problem with recirculating emissions back into the combustion chamber is that soot is an abrasive and could cause catastrophic engine failure by damaging the camshaft and bearings.
“Do you idle your engine at night?” A eavesdropping trucker asked.
“Heck no! Not only does it hurt the engine, it’s harmful to the environment, and it’s noisy as hell. What the hell are you here for anyways?”
“For a damn PM or preventive maintenance…should be done once ever 15-20,000 miles. Besides an oil change, all fluid levels are checked: the transmission, coolant, brake fluids and the differential.
Luke proceeded to check the fluid level in the differential gearbox. He stuck a finger in the filler hole and it was about 1/4” below the hole.
“Love fingering that stink spot. You’re short on gear oil by the way.”
“For which gear box?”
“Both rear tandems,” he responded with a sense of alarm.
“You’ve been running low. You need to replace the fluid every 100,000 miles or else you’re in danger of losing your rear end on the side of I-40 to Memphis.”
Differential takes power from the engine and splits it, allowing the wheels to spin at different speeds. Simply put, a differential transmits engine torque to the wheels and allows the outer wheels to rotate faster than the inner ones.
I hung out at the driver’s lounge that was kind of like the Delta Sky Lounge without all the bells and whistles. I was there with my cat, Meeko, and Scott, who was getting his PM was there with his dog, Molly.
“Yeah, sometimes when I’m driving, I hear clicking or popping noises,” Scott added, out of the blue.
“Is it rumbling or growling like a grizzly bear?” asked another driver who was getting a valve adjustment. This process is a tune up for the injectors helping keep fuel mileage low. You’ll know that you need one if you hear a loud clicking or tapping noise when starting the engine or when you experience a loss in power.
“It’s a humming, rumbling or growling noise that increases with acceleration or as the vehicle turns,” Scott answered.
“That’s the sound of a bad wheel bearing my friend,” the other driver replied.
“I know, cause I’ve had just about everything bad happen to me already. Last month, coming from Texarkana, I could smell rotten egg from the engine. I shut her down at the closest Pilot and saw diesel fuel gushing out of the injectors.”
“Yeah trucking is a hard business to earn a day’s wage. Gotta keep our head on our swivel all day, then when we shut down tackle mounds of paperwork, and pray to God our truck starts up the next day.”
And the very next day, I got more bad news from Luke. Summit International informed me that I needed a new Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF). The exhaust after treatment device that traps particulate matter such as soot and ash was critically clogged and cracked. Sadly, I would need a new one at a cost of $5,000. The total tab for all the work would amass 13 Grand. It would take a few days of work and the parts would need to be shipped from Memphis.
Since there was nothing for me to do but wait for the parts, and my truck was still functioning, albeit spewing carbon emissions, a made a bee-line for the “Rock.” There are quite a few places in the city to enjoy good food and drinks. The capital city is known for its barbecue and cheese dip.
Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro is a good place to relax and enjoy music and food in front of the bloating Arkansas River. It has an array of wickedly good food coupled with a wide selection of beer and wine. The Tommy Knocker creme sodas are wonderful; the blueberry French toast is the bomb; the Roche cheese dip is to die for, and all the sauces are made from scratch. The decor is fun and interesting, the ambiance is vibrant and the music lively and comforting.
Doe’s Eat Place is a Little Rock treasure rooted in grass roots history. I’ve never been to a place that has quite the atmosphere as Doe’s. It’s kind of small and cluttered but as soon as you walk through the doors you’re hit with the most wonderful smells in the world. The steak is beautifully cooked here, and served family style, which I adore. The sides and apps are amazing and the tamales are hot and flavorful. The pecan pie is out of this world! If it’s good enough for Bill Clinton, it’s certainly good enough for me.
After spending a week here, I’ve come to the happy conclusion that “the Rock” is both simple and beautiful with its rolling hills, neighborhood streets and tree-lined rivers. And for the next few days, I would call it my little respite. Cash for soul food and adult beverages flowed out of my pockets here like the Arkansas River. Why not, I was already spending massive amounts on my truck. Not that it didn’t run well. It was just a gas hog and a chain smoker.
Now that I got my fill, I booked a load for next Monday to Rochester, NY. Hopefully my truck would be fixed by then. I was ready for upstate, mountain scenery.