If you’ve followed this irregular blog regularly for a few years, you’ve noted that I seem to end up in the service of Santa every xmas. Ever short staffed, Santa seems to send out an invite to a North Pole or thereabouts “media event” to every writer with a CDL or Locomotive Engineer’s license every December, and I sucker for it every time.

With global warming, the logistics are shifting- While the North Pole is still officially Santa’s “home office”, the actual workshops where the elves toil have been moving to terra firma ringing the increasingly navigable arctic sea lanes. And thanks to the activism of Humane Societies everywhere, the reindeer have been retired to ceremonial duties while a fleet of now obsolete Panamax container ships have taken their place. On land,  Santa’s traditional fleet of steam locomotives is now supplemented with early diesel streamliners, which produce damn near as much smoke but little steam.

This makes the logistics path for the coasts fairly simple- Just sail in to the empty for the  holiday weekend ports and cross dock to the waiting sleights and horseless carriages. But for the middle of the continent, it’s a little more complicated, what with the rocky Canadian Shield being a bit more of a bar to navigation than mere ice. But thanks to the dissolution of the legendary Canadian Wheat Pool, there’s an underused port and railroad running south available at Churchill, Manitoba at the south end of Hudson Bay… And Santa is all over it!. Get the container ships of toys into the harbor before freeze up, transfer to the waiting trains, then fleet them south down the single track. But if you’ve looked at a North American rail map, you’ve noted that most railroads go east-west and Santa’s toys need to go south. Fortunately there’s a little used intermodal lift facility in the giant BNSF yard near Fargo just before the tracks from the north turn east and west, and it’s right by Interstates 29 and 94…

So it was that I was summoned on xmas eve to a familiar sounding address in the boom town that is Fargo. Expecting the usual industrial digs or worse, arriving by the failing light of late afternoon what should appear out of the fog but a fancy new glass and steel modern office building, and stranger yet was a suspicious “Windows” logos all over the place. Hadn’t even walked up to the guard’s desk and my $200 Windoze laptop was overheating, and it was supposed to be off. Inside, instead of a vast warehouse or garage with abundant sweets, cider, and hot cocoa was a buffet of skimpy organic vegies and lettuces and an open bar stocked with expensive beverages far beyond my usual experience. I thought they wanted us to drive tonight?

I’d noticed a lot of Mercedes in the lot, but Microsoft does pay above market for Fargo, but still low by Seattle standards, which probably explains why they’re there. After an hour or so of alcohol availability, Freightliner’s finest “spin doctors” went to work, attempting to impress us with their latest “autonomous” trucks. And as some of the press collapsed from the libations, a Freightliner VP of something or other took the stage and detailed our xmas eve assignment. In the back parking lot were dozens of new self-driving Freightliner trucks, and we were to bobtail the couple miles over to the intermodal rail yard, hook to our trailers, and make our deliveries. I’d made the mistake of letting slip that I had a doubles endorsement, and was rewarded with a route south on Interstate 29 and not one but two trailers.

Introduced to our Freightliner, I was greeted by a massive dashboard display full of Windows 10. Tried to just start the truck and drive, but the truck/computer insisted I enter our destination, and it didn’t know what or where BNSF Dilworth Yard was. Looked up the address on my cheapie ‘droid phone and manually entered it and Windows was happy. Fog wasn’t too thick yet and plenty of streetlights to navigate by, so after a couple hours I’d rolled two containers on trailers across the line to North Dakota where the pair could legally be married and hitched the whole mess together.

I’d become increasingly confident in the trucks ability to drive itself, and after I’d taught it the route on the first trip I could pretty much let it take over on the second trip… No doubt the truck’s computer was recording GPS waypoints and learning that route. After a couple turns on the main streets it seemed to learn how wide to take the corners with two trailers in tow, so as we got close to the freeway I punched in “follow route”, should be easy for the truck’s computer to find I-29 to Sioux Falls. I clicked on the web browser to check out the weather and road conditions…

The fog was getting thicker, thick enough that the usual landmarks had disappeared. Don’t remember the onramp to 1-29 being that steep a downhill, nor the actual freeway near as crooked as the parallel Red River of the North. In the absence of visual clues, I cracked the window a bit… Is that cracking thunder? But we needed to get south before the freezing rain and blizzard caught us, and I don’t remember 1-29 ever being this smooth… Dang Freightliner at least rides good, lean the seat back and I could fall asleep…

Dang, that’s a low bridge ahead!