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Badass Brother Truckers

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Badass Brother Truckers 1004

It's dripping a wet snow in the evergreens north of Spokane, Washington, and the air at the Trego Transportation truck lot is heavy with diesel fumes and moisture. But the 500-horsepower Caterpillar engines are warming up. The running lights on the big rigs are shining with all the possibility of Christmas. And the Nordell brothers are loading their Rossi Bandits into the sleeper cabs of their matching, chili-red Peterbilt classics with nearly three million combined miles on the odometers. They grab their coolers (also matching) full of meat sandwiches built for a week on the road, hug Boo the rottweiler, who will not eat for three days after the brothers motor away on a run, and we tractor off.

The stickers on the passenger-side vent windows read: Earth First: We'll Log the Other Planets Later, Tecnica, Briko, Pow-Mia, Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, and Powder To The People. We're going skiing with a payload.

A few old-school skiers may remember Colorado-made Trucker skis-perhaps particularly the Mother Trucker-but most don't know any skiing truckers. Ever since I drank beer with a driver who was routed through Salt Lake City and skied Little Cottonwood Canyon twice a week, though, I have been intrigued by the concept of "driving truck" for the joint purpose of making a living and accessing the winter goods.

So I've tagged along with the Nordell brothers, Kirk and Robb, to get a feel for the life. On this particular run, their custom trailers are loaded with timber products-two 46-foot home logs worth several thousand dollars apiece perched above various lesser logs. From Spokane north, we make a right turn at Elk and take the back roads, traversing over the I-90 corridor, to Missoula, Montana, before moving south on U.S. 93 through the Bitterroot Valley. The plan is to pick up more home logs in the town of Stevensville, then catch a day of powder skiing at Lost Trail Powder Mountain on the Montana-Idaho state line. After that, the load is headed for C & E Lumber in Pomona, California. Trips like these keep the brothers in Gore-Tex.

Kirk prognosticates that the snow atop Lost Trail Pass "oughta be ass-high on a tall Indian." "If there's two flakes of snow gonna fall, chances are one of them's gonna land on Lost Trail every time," Kirk says. Besides, Lost Trail has an enormous frozen mud lot in which to idle two 74-foot-long outfits for free. Sure, vertical, terrain, and powder are nice, but if you're truck-skiing you've got to have a trucker-scale parking lot.

Living in a big rig is not unlike expedition tent-life: Space is limited, and when the weather gets Western, you've got to piss in a bottle. Which is why I'm careful not to kick the red plastic Marvelous Mystery Oil jug Kirk keeps behind his seat and discretely empties between the drive wheels every couple of days. I unstuff my mummy bag and bivouac in the Naugahyde-and-suede cave of the sleeper cab. A mobile of coconut air fresheners twirls in front of my nose. From my perch on the bunk-the passenger seat has been replaced with a plug-in cooler-I can watch the road through the feather dream catcher made by Nikki, an exotic dancer and one of Kirk's old girlfriends back in Alaska. "She calls me every three years or so," Kirk says. "When she's in trouble."

Kirk, who resembles a cross between Reinhold Messner and Johnny PayCheck, laughs my way. "You were sure taking a chance on us, coming up here to go skiing with a couple truck drivers. You mighta got a 300-pound turkey who runs the green slopes." Actually, the brothers put together probably don't trip the 300-pound mark. At 60 (Kirk) and 56 (Robb), they're aging athletes, but they are athletes.

Brother Robb started skiing around the Great Falls, Montana, ranch they grew up on. Kirk's passion was sparked at Fort Lewis College in Durango on 215-centimeter Rossi Stratos with Look Nevada toepieces and Marker rotating heels. "I even had a pair of 220's for a while. I hate this short, fattuff," Kirk says. The brothers have skied white lines from British Columbia to southern California, and all the Rocky Mountain states in between. They're obsessed with getting back to Alta soon, though they'll have to get a payload to justify the trip. There are some ridgelines in the Sierras they want to explore. But they refuse to ski Jackson Hole. It's a matter of principle: "They banned Coombs!" Kirk gets worked up when he thinks about it. He's a man of pride and conviction, and it doesn't matter if Coombs is back in the resort's good graces or not. "We go to Grand Targhee."

The solidarity with renegade Coombs fits. The Nordell brothers don't always duck the ropes, but, like most owner-operators just trying to make a living, they've been known to massage the law in the past. "I'm an outlaw," Kirk says. "Have been for 35 years."

Perhaps the most infamous story of a Nordell boy running outlaw has become known as the Pasco Fiasco, or the Great Madras Potato Sale. "I thought I had this game all figured out, then I found out I didn't," Robb says. It was 1978, and he got caught dodging a scale, 26,000 pounds heavy with taters. The Oregon troopers were going to take him to jail, but he bargained a deal to sell the spuds under cost until he reached legal weight. He caught a ride to the grain elevator, bought a gross of seed sacks, and, with the help of the local Catholic priest, sold 100-pound bags for three dollars apiece. The potatoes went fast. "After three days I was outta there," he says. "Didn't get a Madras P.O. box."

Kirk, for his part, spent several years running laps hauling garbage (a.k.a. produce) from L.A. to Edmonton and Calgary-5,000 miles a week, solo. On one trip he didn't sleep for 130 hours. The old days demanded a lifestyle of pick-me-ups like Yellow Jackets, Blacks, Christmas Trees, and West Coast Turnarounds. Hundred-mile-an-hour runs across Nevada were common. Somehow Kirk still managed to jog five miles a day to stay in shape for skiing. "I don't do that stuff no more," he says, speaking about the stimulants and insane hours. Now the brothers have an elliptical trainer and a "weight pile" in the basement next to the cherry Harley-Davidsons and quiver of skinny skis.

Still, he can't help reminiscing about old buddies like Puddle Jumper, Fat Indian, Snaggletooth, Fontaine, Cecil Diesel, Smoker, and Big Joe. They're all dead now. Then there was Fats, who stacked up a load of garbage going 120 between Sieben Flats and Wolf Creek Canyon, taking out 300 yards of guardrail.

"I went to see him and he says to me, 'Nordell, you better take the gears out of that thing.' 'Why's that?' I say. 'Look at me,' he says. 'Well, Fats, the difference is I know I ain't God.'"

After dark is good running," Kirk says. It doesn't bother him that the road is packed with polished snow. Even at 50-below Fahrenheit, the tires on a rig this size warm the surface underneath them enough to make it slick as snot on a door handle. But Kirk's an eight-year veteran of Alaska's James Dalton Highway, between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay-trucking's extreme proving ground, and a constant adrenaline rush. "Eighteen percent grades at 105,000 pounds, you don't have to do nothin' else," he says.

The turbocharger sucks and whines as we climb. Eyes up, Kirk looks several wheel adjustments ahead and finds his line. His upper body is quiet as he plants gears with his wrist. His legs clutch and throttle with the terrain. On the CB he warns brother Robb of hazards: "Good-size rock in the middle of the road." On the back side he gears down, switches on his jake brake, and threads the 80,000-pound outfit down the mountain.

"Gotcha," Robb replies. We level off on top of the pass and drop a six percent grade to the border that's slicker than synthetic motor oil. "I love snow and ice. It gets rid of three things: One, bugs. Two, tourists. And three, children. It's all kids driving these days. When it snows they hole up in a truck stop, sippin' coffee where they can't hurt nobody."

After a night in Missoula and a breakfast heavy on the white gravy, the air brakes bleed a hiss as we pull into the yard at Black Dog Timber near Stevensville. The log dogs here know the brothers and talk about skiing and California roundwood prices. "We're headed to Lost Trail," Kirk tells Nate, who is strapping down more logs on top of the load. "That place is awesome," Nate smiles. "You a skier?" I ask him. "Hell, yeah!" He hollers down. "We went to Whistler on our honeymoon. My wife wanted to go to Fiji."

Robb rappels off the side of the 20-foot load with a tie-down strap as if he's dropping into the mouth of a sketchy couloir. Now the brothers are pretty certain we're within a burrito of running heavy. But there's not another open scale between here and Nevada, so not to worry. I climb in Robb's cab, the brothers synchronize their "funny books" via the CB radio, and-hats off and hair flyin'-motor for Lost Trail.

Robb's truck is filled with calming New Age jazz from XM satellite channel 103. A Grateful Dead magical-mushroom sticker adorns the passenger-side window. There's a rattlesnake in a tiny cowboy hat hanging from the ceiling and when the truck sways he gently kisses the windscreen. "Name's Heebie-Jeebie," Robb says. "I call him that because my driving gives him the heebie-jeebies. When things go gunnybags, he's gonna be the first one to the wreck."

We talk about trucking as a way to access North America's best skiing while getting paid. As independent operators, the brothers get to choose their routes, but the costs of insurance, road and fuel taxes, and parts and licenses keep profit margins slim-and that's not counting fines for running fast and heavy. "It's just a damn hard way to make a living," Robb says. Every year the Nordell brothers spend an average of 280 days on the road-each. At best they get in 15 ski days along the way. They'd work more if they could. "Every game's gotta have rules," Robb says. "But this is the only job in the country where you get penalized for working hard."

The brothers appear from the sleeper cabs that double as on-site locker rooms, Robb in his black North Face one-piece, Kirk in his Spyder bag, black with bright accents. "This is a Tommy Moe," he says. "I learned a long time ago a one-piece keeps snow from getting rammed down your ass."

We skate to diesel-powered Chair 1. By now, my senses are nearly immune to the smell of the exhaust. Buckles get tightened, straps get strapped. Robb sites his pole in the air. "Damn, it's bent," he says. "Just like my dick." The liftie-bearded dude in grease-stained Carhartts laughs. Lifties relate more to these truckers than to your civilian-grade skiers and boarders: They get it.

We make a warm-up run to shake the miles out of our legs. The brothers ski like they drive truck: fast and, for the most part, under control-but don't ask them to stop 80,000 pounds on a dime. We hike to the out-of-bounds area above Moose Creek, breaking a trail through pines in a foot and a half of week-old snow. Robb slips on the traverse and falls headfirst into a tree well. There is muffled invective, then he emerges like a groundhog, dusts himself off, and clicks back in. When we rendezvous at the top of the face and digest the view of the Pioneer Mountains to the east, a meatloaf of snow falls out of the crown of a 30-foot lodgepole and pegs him square on the helmet.

While Robb clears his goggles, Kirk takes charge. He shoots a plumb line over a wind pillow and descends a 35-degree powder face between exposed rock spines with grace, speed, and form enough to win a NASTAR pin. Kirk explained to me earlier that his style is like Alberto Tomba's. "I call it a lateral edge change," he says. "I don't know what the hell the technical name would be. You got to figure that's what made him so fast."

Then Robb drops in. He's working the powder, dual puffs of white exhaust trailing his tails, but thingsoffee where they can't hurt nobody."

After a night in Missoula and a breakfast heavy on the white gravy, the air brakes bleed a hiss as we pull into the yard at Black Dog Timber near Stevensville. The log dogs here know the brothers and talk about skiing and California roundwood prices. "We're headed to Lost Trail," Kirk tells Nate, who is strapping down more logs on top of the load. "That place is awesome," Nate smiles. "You a skier?" I ask him. "Hell, yeah!" He hollers down. "We went to Whistler on our honeymoon. My wife wanted to go to Fiji."

Robb rappels off the side of the 20-foot load with a tie-down strap as if he's dropping into the mouth of a sketchy couloir. Now the brothers are pretty certain we're within a burrito of running heavy. But there's not another open scale between here and Nevada, so not to worry. I climb in Robb's cab, the brothers synchronize their "funny books" via the CB radio, and-hats off and hair flyin'-motor for Lost Trail.

Robb's truck is filled with calming New Age jazz from XM satellite channel 103. A Grateful Dead magical-mushroom sticker adorns the passenger-side window. There's a rattlesnake in a tiny cowboy hat hanging from the ceiling and when the truck sways he gently kisses the windscreen. "Name's Heebie-Jeebie," Robb says. "I call him that because my driving gives him the heebie-jeebies. When things go gunnybags, he's gonna be the first one to the wreck."

We talk about trucking as a way to access North America's best skiing while getting paid. As independent operators, the brothers get to choose their routes, but the costs of insurance, road and fuel taxes, and parts and licenses keep profit margins slim-and that's not counting fines for running fast and heavy. "It's just a damn hard way to make a living," Robb says. Every year the Nordell brothers spend an average of 280 days on the road-each. At best they get in 15 ski days along the way. They'd work more if they could. "Every game's gotta have rules," Robb says. "But this is the only job in the country where you get penalized for working hard."

The brothers appear from the sleeper cabs that double as on-site locker rooms, Robb in his black North Face one-piece, Kirk in his Spyder bag, black with bright accents. "This is a Tommy Moe," he says. "I learned a long time ago a one-piece keeps snow from getting rammed down your ass."

We skate to diesel-powered Chair 1. By now, my senses are nearly immune to the smell of the exhaust. Buckles get tightened, straps get strapped. Robb sites his pole in the air. "Damn, it's bent," he says. "Just like my dick." The liftie-bearded dude in grease-stained Carhartts laughs. Lifties relate more to these truckers than to your civilian-grade skiers and boarders: They get it.

We make a warm-up run to shake the miles out of our legs. The brothers ski like they drive truck: fast and, for the most part, under control-but don't ask them to stop 80,000 pounds on a dime. We hike to the out-of-bounds area above Moose Creek, breaking a trail through pines in a foot and a half of week-old snow. Robb slips on the traverse and falls headfirst into a tree well. There is muffled invective, then he emerges like a groundhog, dusts himself off, and clicks back in. When we rendezvous at the top of the face and digest the view of the Pioneer Mountains to the east, a meatloaf of snow falls out of the crown of a 30-foot lodgepole and pegs him square on the helmet.

While Robb clears his goggles, Kirk takes charge. He shoots a plumb line over a wind pillow and descends a 35-degree powder face between exposed rock spines with grace, speed, and form enough to win a NASTAR pin. Kirk explained to me earlier that his style is like Alberto Tomba's. "I call it a lateral edge change," he says. "I don't know what the hell the technical name would be. You got to figure that's what made him so fast."

Then Robb drops in. He's working the powder, dual puffs of white exhaust trailing his tails, but things go gunnybags and his right ski gets sideways. He disappears. One ski tip in the air, Robb yodels in pain. I begin to sidestep up in the 14 inches of powder; Kirk, who is 40 yards below me, opts to ski for the patrol. Two snowboarders, who'd been hucking a 20-foot cliff band just to driver's left of our line, surf down to where Robb was making anguished snow angels. Everyone feared they would find Robb headed southbound with his throttle leg intent on northbound.

He's intact and, though in intense pain, his leg hasn't jackknifed. The boarders, high school kids from nearby Victor, make a flatbed sled with their boards and slide Robb to the bottom of the draw. "I'll never say anything bad about knuckle-draggers again," Robb says through a frozen mustache.

The patrol arrives and proceeds to bag Robb and freight him across the frozen creek and through a copse of dog-hair lodgepole, stopping to blow every 15 yards. "Shoulda had one less piece of pie, Bubba," Kirk says to his brother.

Twenty minutes later, Robb's tattoo is showing in the old hospital bed from the patrol shack. He calls for whiskey. "You look like you've driven too many miles on the wrong road," one of the patrollers tells him. "I didn't commit," Robb says, referring to the turn that landed him here. "I stretched the holy bejeepers out of everything." Robb's hospital bed is on the Idaho side of the state line that runs through the patrol shack. Brother Kirk, who gets to go skiing tomorrow, is on the Montana side, drinking a beer.

The next day robb reads a Stephen King novel in the lodge. "It sucks to be me right now, I'll tell ya," he says as Kirk and I head to the lifts. There has been sun and wind, and Kirk discusses his breakable-crust technique: "You gotta unload the damn things." Kirk is talking, presumably, about his skis, not his truck. "I'm tryin' to do my sneaky-Pete thing." We find a cache of shaded powder and Kirk grabs five feet of air off a lip, gets in the backseat midair, and slaps the landing on his right cheek. He laughs--after all, he's tarped warmly inside his Tommy Moe--gets back up, and disappears into the trees.

It's dusk when we throw our gear into the sleepers. Robb limps to the cab, grabs the sissy bar, and pulls himself behind the wheel. It'll be a few days before the swelling recedes enough to get an accurate prognosis of the knee damage. "We love what we do," he says. He's taken a handful of 500-mg Tylenol. "But after a fun day of skiing, you gotta get in the truck and drive 20 hours."

Robb can work the accelerator with his melon knee and the brothers are eager to get down the highway and offload the sticks they're packing. On the return they're thinking about Mammoth. "There's some coolers up there we've been meaning to ski," Kirk says. "Cooler, cool-war, however-the-hell you say it." But first Robb will have to pay a visit to the sawbones. Twelve years ago, Kirk skied Lost Trail for three days straight. "I was in powder up to my butt. I was just beat," he says. He was on the very stretch of U.S. 93 we're rolling now. He needed to get to the steakhouse in Mackay and shut down for the night. "All I wanted to do was get to Amy Lou's. I had my mind tuned up to go that far." He crested 7,160-foot Willow Creek. On the descent, the rig took the shoulder and got sucked into the barrow pit. Off the road, trailer flying behind like a chuck wagon behind a runaway team. "I was asleep. I woke up at that gravel pile right there," he tells me, pointing to the rock pile to the right. Miraculously, he got all 80,000 pounds-give or take-righted at 85 miles an hour. "The Big Guy didn't want no fool truck driver that night."

As we bottom out in Arco, Idaho, the heater is cranking, the Cat is purring, Pink Floyd is in the CD changer, and the chrome grill punches a hole in the light fog of midnight. "You know," Kirk says, "I set in this truck hours, and hours and hours and I'm skiing in my mind. Practicing my pedal turns."

The brothers hhelp me offload my gear near the Flying J in Jerome. I have a feeling we'll make turns together again. Alta, maybe. Targhee. Bridger Bowl. Not Jackson Hole. "Take it cool," Kirk says. He climbs back in, releases the brake, and the Nordell brothers gear up for a 2 a.m. to Nevada, where Kirk had told me of one particular stretch of oil where a brother can still run a hundred miles an hour all night long.

October 2004 gunnybags and his right ski gets sideways. He disappears. One ski tip in the air, Robb yodels in pain. I begin to sidestep up in the 14 inches of powder; Kirk, who is 40 yards below me, opts to ski for the patrol. Two snowboarders, who'd been hucking a 20-foot cliff band just to driver's left of our line, surf down to where Robb was making anguished snow angels. Everyone feared they would find Robb headed southbound with his throttle leg intent on northbound.

He's intact and, though in intense pain, his leg hasn't jackknifed. The boarders, high school kids from nearby Victor, make a flatbed sled with their boards and slide Robb to the bottom of the draw. "I'll never say anything bad about knuckle-draggers again," Robb says through a frozen mustache.

The patrol arrives and proceeds to bag Robb and freight him across the frozen creek and through a copse of dog-hair lodgepole, stopping to blow every 15 yards. "Shoulda had one less piece of pie, Bubba," Kirk says to his brother.

Twenty minutes later, Robb's tattoo is showing in the old hospital bed from the patrol shack. He calls for whiskey. "You look like you've driven too many miles on the wrong road," one of the patrollers tells him. "I didn't commit," Robb says, referring to the turn that landed him here. "I stretched the holy bejeepers out of everything." Robb's hospital bed is on the Idaho side of the state line that runs through the patrol shack. Brother Kirk, who gets to go skiing tomorrow, is on the Montana side, drinking a beer.

The next day robb reads a Stephen King novel in the lodge. "It sucks to be me right now, I'll tell ya," he says as Kirk and I head to the lifts. There has been sun and wind, and Kirk discusses his breakable-crust technique: "You gotta unload the damn things." Kirk is talking, presumably, about his skis, not his truck. "I'm tryin' to do my sneaky-Pete thing." We find a cache of shaded powder and Kirk grabs five feet of air off a lip, gets in the backseat midair, and slaps the landing on his right cheek. He laughs--after all, he's tarped warmly inside his Tommy Moe--gets back up, and disappears into the trees.

It's dusk when we throw our gear into the sleepers. Robb limps to the cab, grabs the sissy bar, and pulls himself behind the wheel. It'll be a few days before the swelling recedes enough to get an accurate prognosis of the knee damage. "We love what we do," he says. He's taken a handful of 500-mg Tylenol. "But after a fun day of skiing, you gotta get in the truck and drive 20 hours."

Robb can work the accelerator with his melon knee and the brothers are eager to get down the highway and offload the sticks they're packing. On the return they're thinking about Mammoth. "There's some coolers up there we've been meaning to ski," Kirk says. "Cooler, cool-war, however-the-hell you say it." But first Robb will have to pay a visit to the sawbones. Twelve years ago, Kirk skied Lost Trail for three days straight. "I was in powder up to my butt. I was just beat," he says. He was on the very stretch of U.S. 93 we're rolling now. He needed to get to the steakhouse in Mackay and shut down for the night. "All I wanted to do was get to Amy Lou's. I had my mind tuned up to go that far." He crested 7,160-foot Willow Creek. On the descent, the rig took the shoulder and got sucked into the barrow pit. Off the road, trailer flying behind like a chuck wagon behind a runaway team. "I was asleep. I woke up at that gravel pile right there," he tells me, pointing to the rock pile to the right. Miraculously, he got all 80,000 pounds-give or take-righted at 85 miles an hour. "The Big Guy didn't want no fool truck driver that night."

As we bottom out in Arco, Idaho, the heater is cranking, the Cat is purring, Pink Floyd is in the CD changer, and the chrome grill punches a hole in the light fog of midnight. "You know," Kirk says, "I set in this truck hours, and hours and hours and I'm skiing in my mind. Practicing my pedal turns."

The brothers help me offload my gear near the Flying J in Jerome. I have a feeling we'll make turns together again. Alta, maybe. Targhee. Bridger Bowl. Not Jackson Hole. "Take it cool," Kirk says. He climbs back in, releases the brake, and the Nordell brothers gear up for a 2 a.m. to Nevada, where Kirk had told me of one particular stretch of oil where a brother can still run a hundred miles an hour all night long.

October 2004others help me offload my gear near the Flying J in Jerome. I have a feeling we'll make turns together again. Alta, maybe. Targhee. Bridger Bowl. Not Jackson Hole. "Take it cool," Kirk says. He climbs back in, releases the brake, and the Nordell brothers gear up for a 2 a.m. to Nevada, where Kirk had told me of one particular stretch of oil where a brother can still run a hundred miles an hour all night long.

October 2004

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