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Icy Road Trucking: Sometimes It’s Not The Gig But The Journey…

A tale of skidding (well, technically driving) to a show and back on Prince Edward Island, Canada more than 40 years ago. (An audio version of this article is available for download.)

Sometime in the late winter/early spring of 1979, I did the only “one-off” gig of my early sound mixing career in Prince Edward Island, Canada. Most of the details of this gig are lost to memory, but the one thing I will never forget is getting there… and back.

The job was a Saturday evening dance put on by (I think) an organization called “The Island Music Co-Op” and held in the community hall in a place called Pleasant Valley.

The weather had been mild on the day of the gig, but by the time I set off for Charlottetown to pick up my friend Jim, a light rain was falling. Jim was my stagehand for the gig and lived in a suburb on the northwest side of the city.

Rising To The Challenge

It was late afternoon when I picked him up and already getting dark when we started making our way to Pleasant Valley. By this time, the light raindrops were starting to look a bit… thicker, but I hadn’t really twigged to what that meant for driving conditions until we came upon about a half dozen semi-trailers sitting on the side of the road with their hazard lights flashing. At the time, this was a lot of trucks to see all in one place, so I decided I’d better pull over and find out why they were stopped.

I got out of my truck, a ’75 Ford F-100 with a home-built plywood cap, walked up to the nearest rig, got the driver’s attention, and asked him what was going on. His response was something to the effect of, “You can drive in this sh*t if you want too, but we’re not going anywhere!” at which point I noticed that the thick raindrops were freezing and coating the road with solid ice.

Undaunted, I got back in my truck and Jim and I got moving – which I quickly discovered meant moving in a lot of different directions besides the one I was meaning to go. Nonetheless, I found that I could control the truck and keep making some headway if I took it pretty slow.

I’d also had quite a bit of experience driving in slippery conditions by this point, most of it gained while getting up to some foolishness in ice-covered fields with farm tractors and the pickup. So, the drill was to steer into the skid and try really, really hard not to use the brakes.

This worked, but the “skid” was nearly continuous. I don’t recall going two truck lengths in the same direction for that entire drive.

One of the waypoints on the drive was the town of Hunter River, which was also in a valley. This meant there was a long hill descending into town and then another long hill heading up on the way out. I was more concerned about making it down the hill in one piece but that went fine.

The nerve-wracking bit was when we started up the hill. We were doing OK, albeit with a lot of fishtailing going on, when about halfway up the hill, a carload of kids (Kids! I was 17…almost 18!) backed out of a driveway and promptly got stuck on the road in front of us. Fortunately, they thought better of their mission and managed to get the car back in the driveway before we made it that far, so we didn’t have to stop.

Pressing Onward

Now, I know what you’re thinking… no, probably screaming at whatever device you’re reading this on: “Hey! Stop! Turn around! Pull over! Go home! NO ONE is going to actually put on an event with those kind of driving conditions in play, so, dude, it’s cancelled!”

I admit that this possibility crossed my mind, but at this point (no cell phones) the only way we were going to find that out was by getting to the venue, so we pressed on. And, when we arrived at the venue, it was open, the lights were on, and they were waiting for us to set up. Which we did, and then the place filled to capacity. I mean, full, like standing room only.

Except nobody was standing, because they were all dancing, really dancing, to the point that the floor was bouncing up and down so much that if I wanted to change a setting on my mixer (at the time a Tapco 6201) I had to time my move so the mixer was heading up towards my hand when I reached for a knob.

A view of a vintage Tapco 6201, the same mixer that the author employed for the gig.

I should mention that at the time, I didn’t own a snake, so the routine was to set up on one of those six-foot bingo hall tables, pushed right up against the front of the stage. This of course put us squarely in the “mosh pit” or whatever it was called for the kind of Celtic folk dancing that was going on around us. In any case, I remember being very concerned that we were going to all end up in a tangled heap in the basement.

But we didn’t, a good time was had by all, and when the music finally stopped, we packed up and got back in the truck. The roads hadn’t improved at all, so we slowly made our way back to Charlottetown and I crashed at Jim’s place for the night.

One More Hiccup

The next day dawned bright and clear, and late morning I headed home. The roads, while improving, were still not great and to get home, I had some choices to make as to what was likely to be the safest route. Our farm was on a secondary road that diverged from the Trans Canada Highway (TCH) a few miles to the west of us and rejoined it about 10 miles to the east.

Since I was heading west, the 10 miles on the secondary road was the most direct route (and our usual route into “town” as it was called), but I reasoned that the secondary road was probably still pretty icy. It also featured a hill descending on a turn that ended at a causeway and I didn’t fancy ending up in the drink if I lost control on the hill.

So, I decided to take the TCH past our place and then double back. This all went fine until I got back on Route 19 (the secondary road) and was heading back to our farm. Route 19 was, as I had expected, still pretty icy, even if it was starting to melt and break up in the noonday sun.

And, when I was still about a mile from our place, I went into yet another skid. I swear I did everything exactly the same as I’d been doing for all of the miles of icy roads I’d just driven, but to no avail. The truck spun around lazily and slid into the ditch backwards on the opposite side of the road. I was only going about 20 miles per hour at the time, so I wasn’t even shaken up, and the ditch was fairly shallow so it wasn’t a huge deal, didn’t even shift any of my equipment… except it was clear that I couldn’t just drive out again.

This happened just steps from a neighbor’s place, so I went in to phone home. Which, of course, happened at the exact instant that my dad, who had gotten curious about my whereabouts, drove by looking for me and saw the truck, seemingly abandoned in the ditch. I came out of the neighbor’s to find my Dad staring at the truck. I got him settled down and he drove me home, told me to get my brother to help me rescue the truck with our tractor and took off again… I was never sure why.

I ran into the house, told my brother what was up, changed my jacket and off we went on the tractor, with my brother driving and me standing on the drawbar. This was a very rough ride since the tractor was fitted with a set of ring-track tire chains, which made the rear wheels more octagonal than round.

When we got to the truck, it didn’t take me long to realize that I’d left the keys in my jacket pocket when I’d changed coats so we were no further ahead. My brother bravely volunteered to stay with the truck (on this bright, mild day) so that I could be the one to bounce the mile back to the house and then the mile back to the truck. Turns out the seat wasn’t much better than the drawbar when it came to ride quality.

Back with the keys, we had the truck out of the ditch in short order and my brother drove it home… leaving me to bounce that final mile on the tractor, about 24 hours after I’d left for the gig.

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