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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Holiday parade let's them truckers glow

Holiday parade let's them truckers glow

Gary Smith said he looks forward to the timber truckers' parade in John Day. He lets the drivers decide how to arrange the lights along the length of trucks. Smith said he will be driving this year. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Gary Smith said he looks forward to the timber truckers' parade in John Day. He lets the drivers decide how to arrange the lights along the length of trucks. Smith said he will be driving this year. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Gary Smith has been a trucker since Kennedy was president, so when the convoy lines up Saturday evening it's a cast-iron guarantee that everything on his two rigs will be ready.

Their 855-cubic-inch Cummins turbo-diesel engines will rumble with 500-horsepower, 5-miles-per-gallon authority, each cylinder capable of swallowing the entire engine from many an economy car.

Their 40-foot trailers will be loaded with tons of fresh-cut lumber, still smelling strongly of sap.

Their cute little strings of Christmas lights will twinkle in the twilight.

Obviously this is no typical interstate haul Smith is preparing for.

It's a parade.

An unusual one, to be sure, combining smoke-belching machines and quaintly blinking bulbs.

But it's also one of Northeastern Oregon's most popular holiday traditions.

It's called the Timber Truckers Light Parade, and it will roll through downtown John Day Saturday evening starting at 6 o'clock.

The parade route begins at the Grant Western Lumber mill and concludes at the Grant County Fairgrounds.

The tradition started in 1993, and Smith's company has entered decorated trucks in the parade every year except last.

This year Smith, who has been in business in Baker City since 1960, will send two trucks on the journey that covers 160 miles round trip and crosses a trio of snowy, 5,000-foot-plus mountain passes, each one a challenging combination of steep grades and sharp curves.

All the driving and decorating makes for a 12-hour working weekend, but Smith, who's 64 and will drive one of the trucks this year, said the spirit of Christmas and community that pervades the parade route is a more than adequate return on his investments of time and money.

"It's a great event," Smith said. "It's a real morale booster for the industry. I think it's a very impressive parade."

He especially remembers the first event, and how surprised he was by the hordes of spectators who turned out in the chilly December evening to watch a bunch of log trucks roll slowly down the street.

"You wouldn't think there'd be near that many people, especially in that area," Smith said. "I was flabbergasted that first time."

Since then the truckers parade has become one of the year's big events for Smith and his employees.

For a few years the parade did double duty, also serving as the company's annual Christmas party.

Besides the decorated trucks — as many as eight — they brought barbecues to cook hamburgers and hot dogs, and set up a big canvas tent for shelter.

"We invited all the employees' families and made it quite an event," said Mike Smith, Gary's son and business partner.

Decorating the big rigs

But before Smith Trucking's 1995 Freightliner and 1999 International can pull out Baker City, there is the not inconsequential matter of the lights.

Smith figures each truck will need about 1,500, give or take a string or two.

That's a bunch of bulbs.

"And I've got to check 'em all," he said, pointing to half a dozen plastic tubs stacked on the concrete floor of his truck repair bay. Each tub contains several freezer bags, and each bag holds a string of 100 lights.

It's a scene likely to provoke a nervous shudder in any homeowner who ever tussled with a tangle of Christmas lights, struggling to solve the riddle of a gargantuan knot with fingers made frigid by December gusts.

Wherein lies one of Smith Trucking's disadvantages compared with the John Day truckers who participate in their hometown parade.

They can festoon their rigs with lights and decorations inside the cozy confines of a shop within air horn range of the parade route.

But Smith, his son, Mike, and their employees can't drape their 18-wheelers with a few thousand flimsy lights and then drive away at 55 mph. They'd leave a trail of broken bulbs from here to the Grant County line.

For the Smith Trucking crew, most, if not all, of the work is compressed into parade day.

Here's their schedule for Saturday:

If they haven't already scrubbed down the rigs, they'll get to that time-consuming task early.

"They have to be steam-cleaned head to toe, truck and trailer," Gary Smith said. "Then we hope it doesn't rain or snow on the way over."

The two-truck caravan will leave Baker City about 10 in the morning — early enough to stop by the Prairie Wood Products mill in Prairie City, where they'll take on the load of lumber that serves as raw material for the crew's decorative ideas.

Once they get to John Day the hard work starts.

The truckers have gas-powered electrical generators to set up. Extension cords to wind between stacks of lumber. Dozens of strings of lights to attach by whatever method seems to work best given the vagaries of wind and weather.

"We take a lot of duct tape, staples, wire," Mike Smith said.

Parade organizers announce a different theme each year (this year's is "Forests: Alive Forever"), and the Smith Trucking crews sometimes tailor their lighting scheme to match the theme.

But Gary said he leaves the creative decisions to others.

"I give the guys a whole bunch of lights and let them do their thing," he said.

Over the years his workers have supplemented the basic light show with such things as Christmas trees and stars. One year, when the theme was "Gifts From the Forest," they transformed the stacks of lumber into wrapped Christmas presents, complete with what Gary remembers as the biggest bows he's ever seen.

Of course, after the festivities are finished the drivers have to dismantle everything they spent hours setting up.

And with a 90-minute drive through the dark ahead of them (90 minutes that might stretch to two hours or more if a blizzard happens to be howling over Dixie Mountain or Tipton Summit), they don't waste time pulling every kink out of every string.

"The lights tend to get pretty wadded up," Gary Smith said. "If they get too bad I just pitch 'em."

Dealing with a industry in decline

Several years ago, though, it was something much more serious than tangled lights that Smith had to worry about as the annual truckers parade approached.

For most of his trucking career Smith's main client was Ellingson Lumber Co. If you saw a loaded Smith truck in those days it was almost certain to be hauling raw logs to Ellingson's Baker City mill.

But when the company closed the mill for good late in 1995, Smith no longer had many logs to haul.

Since then the company has diversified, and today Smith trucks often carry products, such as farm equipment from Behlen Mfg. Co.'s Baker City factory, that don't contain even a sliver from a tree.

But the company still hauls a lot of wood, too.

Most of it is finished lumber from D.R. Johnson's mills in Prairie City and John Day. Smith's trucks unload the lumber at a lot off 17th Street next to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, where the products are placed on railcars for shipment across the country.

Smith Trucking also hauls for the U.S. Timber and Marvin Wood Products mills in Baker City.

End of an era

Well into his fifth decade of work, Gary Smith is about ready to shift into retirement.

Mike, who's 42 and has helped his father run the company since the early 1990s, will take over.

But Gary never could altogether abandon this business he helped to build, the business he steered through the economic gridlock that threatened the company when the local logging industry declined.

"I won't get clear out of the business — I love it too much for that," Gary said.

And surely the truckers parade will be among his post-retirement projects.

For Smith the event helps the Christmas spirit shine a bit brighter as it competes with the glaring manufactured glitz of the holiday's commercial side.

He recalls, for example, how Vern and Alice Knapp of Elk Creek Enterprises, and Kip Farmer of Cliff's Saws and Cycles donated the use of generators when Smith Trucking entered nearly its entire fleet of trucks in the parade one year.

Smith said such examples of generosity, combined with the enthusiasm of the parade spectators, make his contributions of diesel (35 gallons per truck round trip at about $1.25 per gallon) and road taxes (there are no exemptions for parades, Mike Smith says with a laugh) seem minor.

"It's a big project, and we put a lot of time into it," Gary said.

"But we love it."

 
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