Eldon Dreyer knew what was coming. He just didn't think it was coming so fast.
Dreyer was driving his motor home west last week down a rolling stretch of Highway 200 east of Ovando, with his wife Shari and their three dogs as passengers.
From the other direction a pilot truck came, amber lights flashing and a hand waving a red flag out the driver's window. He thought he got the message.
"OK, I know there's a big load coming," Dreyer, 75, said a day later.
He figures the next truck, flashing and warning the same way, was about 500 yards behind.
"These guys were driving 50 or 60 miles an hour, going like a bat out of hell," Dreyer said.
He slowed to 40 mph just before the highway entered the east approach to Sperry Grade, where it climbs a small finger ridge and bends back down to the Blackfoot River bottom.
"By that time I'm into the curve, guardrails on both sides of me. Nobody told me to stop. And here that sucker comes," he said.
Ryash Transport Inc. of Leduc, Alberta, was transporting one of several loads of steel formations from Washington to Alberta for Krupp Canada of Calgary. A Ryash semitractor was towing a 115,000-pound, 14-foot-high load, with what Dreyer described as "a big metal piece that jutted out."
The jut spread above the highway 23 feet, 8 inches, according to the trip permit provided by the Montana Department of Transportation. Dreyer later paced it off and estimated the highway at that point at 32 feet wide, guardrail to guardrail. His motor home, counting large sideview mirrors, is about 9 feet wide.
"I got over as far as I could, and of course I didn't want to tear my motor home up on the guardrail either," said Dreyer, who's from Riverside, Calif. "And he caught us."
The Ryash load clipped the driver's side mirror off. The large mirror smashed into the side window, breaking an outer pane of glass but not the inner. Shards cracked the windshield of a trailing Chevrolet Suburban and left what its driver, J.C. Ellender of Choteau, described as "a big pineapple."
Remarkably, no one was hurt.
"We were blessed," Dreyer said. "Twelve inches more and he would have totally wiped out my motor home. He probably would have wiped out me."
The motor home and Suburban quickly found a wide spot to pull over and breathe.
Dreyer said he considered unhitching the car he'd been towing and giving chase to the big rig. "But I decided, what would that prove? And at about that time I looked up the road and here came flashing lights."
A woman driving the trailing escort truck for Ryash had witnessed the incident. She came back to take stock, and was later joined by the unidentified driver of the big rig and another pilot vehicle driver who'd apparently stopped at the closest pulloff point.
They gave the Dreyers and Ellender contact information for Ryash Transport and waited for the Montana Highway Patrol to show up.
Ellender had a doctor's appointment in Missoula and didn't stick around. He said his windshield had been cracked anyway, so he planned on replacing it on his own dime.
Dreyer said a Montana Highway Patrol trooper eventually did show up to investigate. The upshot, he said, was that the big rig driver didn't receive a ticket.
Ryash's permit with the transportation department restricted its speed to 55 mph, and didn't call for traffic stoppages.
"The problem is, by the time you see it, you don't have enough time to react at 55," Dreyer said. "At 35 you have time to put on your brakes, pull way over, do something"
Ellender called Ryash Transport in Canada and spoke with owner Michael Hutchings.
"His reaction was that the motor home was entirely in the wrong, that (Dreyer) had blown through three escort vehicles and that was what put him in harm's way," said Ellender. "But the escort vehicles, in my estimation, were doing a little less than exemplary job, just being in front of him with blinking lights and traveling probably 60 or 70 miles an hour."
Contacted on Wednesday at his headquarters in Leduc, near Edmonton, Hutchings said he didn't have the police report, but didn't think his driver was to blame.
"As far as we know, it's no fault of ours," he said.
According to the MDT permit, the load entered Montana from Idaho on Interstate 90 at Lookout Pass. It left the interstate at St. Regis, presumably to avoid construction projects in Mineral County, and traveled on Highways 35 and 200 to Ravalli, Highway 93 back to I-90 west of Missoula, and jumped back on 200 at Bonner.
Asked why his company didn't haul the loads on I-90 and then I-15 at Butte, as many of Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil's more famous megaloads of oil sands processing equipment are now doing, Hutchings replied, "You'll have to talk to (the Department of Transportation). They decide the final routing, we don't. It's got to do with their construction zones."
Duane Williams, who heads MDT's Motor Carrier Services, said the transport companies pick the route they want to go on when they submit an application for a 32-J (oversized load) permit.
"If there's construction, or if we know of any obstacles, we work with them on that," he said.
Williams said the permit restricted the speed of the Ryash load to 55 mph, and didn't call for night-time travel or stoppages of oncoming traffic.
Hutchings guessed that the load the Dreyers encountered was one of half a dozen that Ryash has already transported through Montana on the project.
"I don't know what we've got left down there. Three or four, maybe," he said.
Lori Ryan of the Montana Department of Transportation said three Ryash loads were due to leave the chain-up area near Mullan, Idaho, at 6 p.m. MDT on Wednesday. Construction at the top of Lookout Pass on the Montana side requires a pilot-car escort of oversized vehicles starting at 6:30 a.m.
Permits are good for five days once they're issued. If there were no complications, Ryash could have reached Alberta by Wednesday night.
The Dreyers were traveling to visit relatives in Missoula from Minot, N.D., where they volunteered to help clean up after devastating floods earlier in the summer. They plan to stay for another week or so in Missoula, but Eldon Dreyer said he's encountered a problem.
It's going to take four weeks to receive a new sideview mirror for his motor home from the factory. He said Wednesday he was trying to figure out how to jury-rig a mirror on so he and Shari can drive home to California.
"I sure think it would be a good idea to let people know this is going on," Dreyer said. "If you see somebody leaning out a window waving a flag, be very careful. You'd better get off the road and stop, by all means."