Highway 28 at Red Canyon south of Lander is notorious among commercial drivers for its blow-over potential. Wally West survived his first knockdown in 1998 at the same spot as this truck, which succumbed to the wind in December 2016. (WYDOT)

“It’s all over before you know it’s started.” That’s how Wally West describes being blown over by the Wyoming wind. He ought to know. In 50-plus years of trucking he survived two capsized semis.

“The first lift kinda puckers your butt,” he adds.

“Lift?”

“Right. Lift … the wind isn’t the same everywhere. It may be gusting to 70, which is bad enough, but in certain spots the lay of the land can accelerate and direct that gust in nasty ways. Maybe 70 becomes 140 for a few hundred yards, blowing straight up.”

Wyoming road warriors know the worst offending stretches by name — Arlington, Beaver Rim, Bordeaux, Elk Mountain, Dunlop, Dead Horse Bend, Snavely Lane, Wyoming Boulevard and many more. During a bad blow they can lay trucks over like cordwood. Winds tossed 232 of them statewide between 2012 and 2016.

Windsocks, like the one seen here on Interstate 80 near Arlington, and a centrally controlled network of digital signs seek to alert drivers to dangerous winds. According to Lander trucker Wally West, “The only thing you can do to stop [a blow-over] is not be there.” (WYDOT)
One such wind-tunnel phenomenon had West in it’s teeth in January 1998. Climbing state Highway 28 on a grocery run from Lander to Salt Lake City, a run he made twice a week for 34 years, an estimated 100 mile per hour gust accelerated skyward out of Red Canyon. The gust momentarily levitated West’s 16,000 pound tractor and 16,000 pound refrigerated trailer.

“So when I felt my wheels break traction, I put in the clutch. It set me back down, for a second, but there was never any doubt what was coming next.”

The next puff arrived and everything went weightless. The horizon banked hard right. The blacktop jumped for the driver’s side window. And then the noise.

“Heck of a noise, metal scraping, glass breaking, shrapnel ricocheting all over the cab … it’s like a drumming effect. You’re inside the drum.” Seconds later, just as suddenly as it had arrived, the commotion ended, replaced by a sickening sense of calm.

Even the engine was silent. At some point along the 90 degree arc of the tipover, West had reached for the key and switched off the ignition.

“You’re headed for the deck in a 32,000 pound truck and you thought to kill the engine?”

“Well sure,” he explained. “Engines are valuable.”

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Then, it’s simply a matter of adapting to a reoriented world — doors have become floors and ceilings, seat belts have become suspension harnesses, and the exit is a long, stiff climb away, enough so that you’ll need a hand making it out. In West’s case a highway patrolman helped pull him through the passenger-side window. He’d been on the scene already, assisting the drivers in the day’s first two blow-overs. But you can expect any passing motorist to lend a hand.

“Everybody stops to make sure you’re OK. Of course they do. This is Wyoming.”

Matthew Copeland

Matthew Copeland is the chief executive & editor of WyoFile. Contact him at matthew@wyofile.com or (307) 287-2839. Follow Matt on Twitter at @WyoCope

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  1. Incredible, I’ve known Wally for years and never knew that. He’s a great person for sure. I’ve stopped to check on a truck blown over at Muddy Gap but the driver was already out of it. Thanks for sharing Wally.