I retired from Lockheed Martin in 2011 and began a second career as a long-haul truck driver. It has been quite an adventure. Nowadays I belong to the New Pony Express – I make U.S. mail runs from LA to Texas and Idaho. The original Pony Express riders would load the mail pouches into their saddlebags and ride at full speed until the next mail station, where they would change horses, maybe have a quick bite to eat, and then ride on again at full speed. That’s what we do, too (except we usually don’t change horses). The work can be exhausting and dangerous at times, usually thanks to the weather, but for me it’s a noble occupation. There is an almost patriotic sense about it. It’s expressed in the postman’s motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
So “saddle up!” and we will take a ride together.
Doug Peck Acton, CA firstname.lastname@example.org
Born Under a Wanderin’ Star
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“Puddle” by M.C.Escher. When we look closely we find wonder in the mundane.
Time to Go
She came downstairs with an armful of laundry. She noticed the acrid smell of overcooked onions and mushrooms sizzling in olive oil on the stove. The heat was too high, as usual. She wrinkled her nose and gave me a skeptical look as she passed by. “I like ‘em well done,” I had insisted. She no longer bothered to complain. “I need to leave after breakfast, dear. Can you take me to the truck?” She nodded “yes” without hesitation. Thank Heaven God gave me an understanding wife.
I’m parked at a Walmart in Laredo. Through the windshield I see a mom and her young adult son waiting at a bus stop. The son sees a shopping cart with a child’s seat attached to it. He climbs awkwardly into the child’s seat and grins at his mom, maybe re-creating a fond childhood memory. She rolls her eyes and moves next to him affectionately. They stand and sit silently together, shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the bus.
Through the Great Smoky Mountains
The sun has risen behind me as I drive northwest from Atlanta to Nashville. I’m in the Great Smoky Mountains. The gentle rise and fall of the ancient hills offers frequent vistas along my journey. When I look out over the dense cover of trees I can barely imagine the great number of people, not to mention dogs and cats and horses and cows and pigs and chickens and every other kind of creature, who inhabit the peaceful scene below the canopy of green.
I had some trepidation when it came time to pull my first double trailers (like the first time you jump off the high dive). I have heard stories of doubles tipping over when a driver went around a curve too fast or swerved to avoid an animal (which you should never do) and it caused the rear trailer to whiplash, then momentum takes over and over you go. One thing they tell you is to always put the lighter trailer in the rear.
The rig felt very stable on the highway, no wobbling or swaying (although I’ve seen Fedex doubles sway six inches to either side) and the additional length of the rig was no problem on corners.
The hardest part was hooking up the doubles. The dolly is very heavy and you have to move it around manually to hook it to the lead trailer and to position it in front of the rear trailer. There are six air brake valves that have to be set properly or the trailers won’t move, because the air brakes will be locked. After I got everything hooked up in the yard I had one of the other double drivers look it over and he said, “Good to go.” It was very exciting and a great sense of accomplishment.
”Ya know, Andy, I don’t think most women – and even some men – could handle hooking up doubles. They just don’t have the upper body strength and the heft. When one of those dollies starts rolling, it wants to go where it wants to go. I could see one of those dollies flopping a light weight woman around like a rag doll. Yup, this is where they separate the men from the boys.”
“That’s right, Barney.”
At the Loves Truck Stop
It’s sunny but a little frosty this morning at the Loves Travel Center in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.
“Man, it’s cold out there!” exclaims a short-sleeved customer as we step up to the self-service coffee counter.
“Yes,” I say, “it’s a chilly one.” He finishes preparing his coffee and moves around to the donut counter, the next station in this familiar routine.
“I’ll bet he hasn’t been to South Dakota in December,” I say to a fellow trucker at the coffee dispenser. He’s obviously a veteran of many cold winters.
“Not to mention North Dakota,” he replies without looking up from the dispenser. “Michigan,” he says laconically, “twenty below, snow up to your axles.”
I nod in agreement. “Oh yeah,” I say, “I’ve been there.” I give him a friendly wave and head to the rest room.
Guys are washing up at the sinks, some of them are shaving. A young father stands next to his wide-eyed little boy at the urinals.
“Step right up there, buddy,” he says with affection. The little guy focuses on his task for a moment. Then all the activity distracts him. As he leans back and looks around he sprays an arc across the wall.
“Whoa, buddy, watch what yer doin’,” says dad, with a grin.
One day when Dad has to reach up to put his arm around his “little boy” maybe he will remember this moment.
I’m revived by the coffee and the brisk morning air as I return to my rig. I call my wife and let her know I expect to be home on time.
The Long Way Home
Most long haul truck drivers will probably tell you that the best part of a long run (aside from the paycheck) is coming home! I look forward to things that I used to take for granted in my former nine-to-five life, before I retired and started trucking: the company of my family, a home-cooked meal, clean sheets on a full-sized bed… Long trips month after month can take a toll on a driver and on his family.
Many years ago my father confided to me that when he was a young man he wanted to travel around the world working on a freighter. That was a surprising revelation. But as time would tell, his career and community and family obligations kept him close to home. He had a long and fulfilling life, but he never fulfilled that wish. Maybe in a way I’m fulfilling it for him.
On the way home from one of my Houston runs I stopped in the middle of the night at a rest area in the desert east of Tucson. I sat down at a picnic table, and as I gazed at the canopy of stars that filled the night sky I thought about my dad. I wondered what he would think about my mostly solitary life on the road, often far from home. Across the ageless ether of space I heard him say, “It takes time and effort to be selfless and caring toward others. For some of us it’s not our natural inclination. But we are obliged to make the effort.” I promised to myself that I would try to follow his advice.
A few weeks later I made the decision to quit the Over the Road business, the long runs that usually go 2-3 weeks on the road. I would find a driving job that allowed more home time. For my last long cross-country tour I went from California to Washington to Wisconsin and back to California. After my last delivery I called my wife and said, “Turn on the crock pot, dear, I’m coming home.” It was a long way home.
“Some times ya just gotta throw a loaf of bread in a sack and jump over the back fence.” – Septuagenarian Appalachian Trail hiker Bill Bryson in “A Walk in the Woods”
I have heard many stories about sons who are disheartened and disappointed with themselves because they could not live up to the high example of their father who may have excelled in sports or business or accomplished some other outstanding achievement.
After David was born I resolved that I would not create such a hazard for my son. I would stifle my former thrill-seeking urges and stick to a life of steadfast mediocrity.
Now, in my mid-sixties, I am proud to report that my strategy has been a success – I have achieved nothing of any great importance (like, say, Albert Einstein) and David is a healthy, happy and confident young man.
I started work at Lockheed 35 years ago as a technical writer. I did that for several years. Then I took classes at UCLA Extension and transferred into the IT department as a network technician. That’s where I made my fortune.
I was one of those unambitious technicians who never addressed a networking convention or in any way attracted public applause (except once, the Pinnacle Award, nothing to sniff at, in 2004). But, in the cool tranquility of the comm rooms and data centers I did a snug business with my cables and keyboard.
When you’re an IT Tech working on classified projects for a defense contractor you spend a lot of time in basement data centers and windowless buildings.
Now, when I’m on the road, I’m my own boss most of the time, navigating through cities and towns, cruising across mountains and deserts and prairies in rain and snow and bright sunshine, solving equipment and schedule problems, and getting the job done with very few “people problems”.
Two months before my retirement date at Lockheed Martin I enrolled in an 8-weekend truck driving school in Los Angeles. Truck driving school was a challenging experience. I had never even sat in a big rig, before I showed up for my first class.
We had a 2008 Freightliner truck with a 53-foot box trailer. It had a 9-speed manual transmission. The student sat in the driver’s seat and the instructor sat in the passenger seat. Three other students sat in individual seats behind us, in the area that would normally be the sleeper berth.
You might think that this would be a setup for lots of snickering and teasing from the peanut gallery. But after we had our first sobering lesson behind the wheel we quickly became more humble and sympathetic toward each other.
After one of us would screw up on shifting or backing or some other unfamiliar task, the rest of us would think to ourselves, “I hope I don’t do that!” We watched each other’s performance and learned from their mistakes.
We split our time between classroom training, practice in the yard, which was mostly backing maneuvers, and driving around the streets and freeways of Fontana.
There were many exasperating and embarrassing moments over the next eight weekends as I struggled to master the basic skills.
My first attempt at backing in a straight line in the practice yard was a disaster. The other students were standing outside the truck waiting for their turn.
My instructor said, “Put it in reverse, let the clutch out slowly, and let it roll backwards in idle.” I put it in reverse and started rolling backwards. It felt like I was going too fast so I stepped on the brake. But I forgot to put in the clutch first. Ohhhhh….that was a mistake.
Now the powerful engine and transmission were fighting against the powerful brake. The truck started bouncing up and down. I think the front wheels were actually leaving the ground.
My instructor was standing on the doorstep so that he could talk me through things. His right arm was holding onto the door frame and his left arm was waving in the air like a cowboy on a bucking bronco.
The other students were rolling with laughter. Finally he yelled “Push in the clutch!” I did that and the truck stopped bouncing and came to a stop.
When the dust cleared I gave him an embarrassed look and said “Sorry ‘bout that.” He rolled his eyes and climbed down and said “Next!”
I completed the course and then passed the DMV written and driving tests and received my Class A license. My instructors recommended Schneider National as a good company for new drivers. I submitted an application and they said, “Come on down!”
On the first day of my New Driver Orientation class at Schneider National they asked all the students to say something about their backgrounds. I was surprised to learn that truckers come in all ages and from all walks of life.
A few of the students were young guys who were just starting out on their first job. A lot of them were middle-aged men and women who were making ends meet as best they could after their real estate or contractor or other businesses went south, and some of them, like me, were recently retired people who were looking for “…a sea change, to something strange and rich”.
We had to consume a fire hose of new information and procedures, plus there was the stress of successfully completing the course so that we could start earning a paycheck and not disappoint our families.
The Schneider instructors made sure that everything was done “by the book” – the Schneider book. They made an example of anyone who didn’t display the right attitude, such as wearing sneakers to class when we were told over and over that we had to wear work boots. One of the instructors told me candidly that “Some of this stuff is a bunch of politically correct BS”. He advised me to just grin and bear it.
The instructors were also good at spotting the welfare scammers – the ones who had no intention of passing the course. They would make the same mistakes again and again and seem to be unable to follow simple instructions. The instructors would get in their face and berate them like a Marine Corp drill instructor. The welfare scammers just shrugged it off.
Every class of a dozen or so students always had two or three washouts. Some couldn’t pass the physical tests, like lifting a 50-pound box from the floor to a table, or climbing without assistance into the open end of a trailer. Some were found to have skeletons in their closet, such as a felony conviction. And some were unable to demonstrate that they could safely handle a big rig.
I ran into one of the washouts from my class several months later at a truck stop in Sacramento. He was working for another company as a team driver. We exchanged a surprised wave as he rolled past me in the parking lot. I wondered if his partner slept peacefully.
The orientation training was followed by two weeks of actual team driving with a Schneider instructor. I did most of the driving and that is how I acquired the basic skills – learn by doing.
There were times when it was reassuring to have an experienced driver in the passenger seat, like the first time I climbed and descended a steep grade with a heavy load – the infamous Grapevine on I-5 north of LA.
At the bottom of the grade I downshifted to 7th gear, the highest gear that would maintain at least 10,000 RPM to keep the engine from stalling.
We climbed like that for two miles to the top of the grade, north of the town of Castaic. Then it leveled out for a while and I was able to shift back up to 13th gear and cruise at a comfortable 60 MPH.
As we passed the Flying J truck stop I knew we would soon be entering The Grapevine. When we reached the sign that said “Trucks Right Lane Only – Maximum 35 MPH” I looked at my instructor and he nodded his assent to the next critical move.
I gave it a moment of full throttle and did the double clutching downshift maneuver into 7th gear. (They insist on double clutching in driving school and in the DMV driving test but experienced drivers rarely use it – you develop a light feel for shifting that allows you to clutch just once and jostle it gently into gear without double clutching.) Now I was in a lower gear that would allow us to safely descend the grade.
I also turned on the Jake Brake so that the engine compression would help slow the rig down without having to constantly apply the brakes, which could overheat the brakes and cause brake failure, which could have catastrophic results.
At the bottom of The Grapevine the freeway opened out to the broad and flat San Joaquin Valley. Now on level ground again I shifted back up to cruising gear. I glanced at at my instructor and received a gratifying smile of approval.
By the end of the two weeks I was very ready to say “Thank you” and “So long” to my instructor. Sharing a small metal box with another man just ain’t natural. And the truck seemed to perform much better with an empty passenger seat. I can be sociable enough when I have to, but generally I prefer solitude when I’m driving.
Over the past five years my trailers have hauled almost everything you can imagine, from Walmart merchandise, to huge bales of hay delivered to the Port of Los Angeles for shipment to China, to raw potatoes loaded onto the truck by conveyor belt in a field in Nebraska. Nowadays I only haul mail. It’s a familiar 4-day run, out and back, through Phoenix, Tucson, and El Paso. Mail is a lightweight load, which saves big-time on fuel and on wear and tear on the engine, transmission, tires, and brakes.
So that’s how I found myself driving around the country in a big rig.
It’s not all footloose and fancy free, like some people think. Truck drivers are usually continuously monitored by their employers when they are on the job, not to mention the Highway Patrol and the government regulating agencies and the always vigilant general public. You have to endure the pain of saying goodbye week after week and the dangers and aggravations of the road and the grit and grime of hauling freight for a living.
They say that Over the Road trucking is a sweatshop industry. There’s a lot of truth in that, including long hours and low pay and no health benefits for many drivers. It may not be the best career choice for a young person who is just starting out (I wouldn’t recommend it to my son). But for some of us the view from the driver’s seat of a big rig, and the freedom and adventure of the open road, can be irresistible.
I took easily to the solitude of solo long haul. As Captain Joshua Slocum said in “Sailing Alone Around the World”, on a solo voyage, “There are seldom any disagreements among the crew; I found no fault with the cook, and it was the rule of the voyage that the cook found no fault with me.”
On the road you can keep the stress of human society comfortably at arm’s length for a while. Like my kindred spirits Eagle and Hawk, a road warrior makes his way through the world independently, sitting alone on his high perch, solitary and self-possessed. Best of all, every trip holds the promise of a new adventure, engaging with the uncertainties of Mother Nature and the ever-changing demands of the job.
My first truck driving run was a load of Walmart merchandise from Los Angeles to Denver. I was assigned to one of the oldest trucks in the yard at Schneider National in Fontana, CA. The ancient Freightliner had more than 850,000 miles on it. The 425 HP Detroit Diesel roared like a freight train when pulling a heavy load up a steep grade. The front bumper and side skirts had scrapes and dents from a dozen encounters in truck stops and customer yards. The relief valves in the brake system would let out a blast of air every now and then, like El Toro in the bull ring. The air blasts kicked up swirls of dust on the side of the road as we went by. I remember pulling over to the shoulder on a deserted stretch of highway in Colorado. I got out and stood in front of the truck and looked around and thought, “Wow! I’m really doing it!”
A lot of guys will buy an older model truck that’s in good condition and then spend thousands of dollars on upgrades like chrome bumpers and exhaust stacks and major interior upgrades. Inside it’s all about comfort and entertainment. They are personalized to the taste of their owners: some are like the red velvet corner booth at the Lady Luck casino, with neon lighting and lots of creature comforts. Others are as Spartan and tidy as a Marine barracks.
These proud owners will spend 20-30 hours or more before a truck show cleaning and polishing every square inch of exposed metal – on the truck, under the hood, and anyplace else that a judge might look. My son and I watched an owner and his son preparing their rig for a show at the Iowa 80 Truck Stop last summer. They were polishing when we pulled into our space around dinner time, they were polishing when I stepped out to answer the call of nature in the middle of the night, and they were still polishing when we went to breakfast in the morning.
I have thought about buying my own truck many times over the years. It’s always in the back of my mind, like a little devil on one shoulder fighting with a little angel on the other shoulder. When I’m cruising down the interstate I daydream about a nicely refurbished old Kenworth or Peterbuilt. They have a special quality, more character and charisma than the newer trucks. They’re the kind of truck that guys give affectionate names to. A gorgeous old Kenworth passed me the other day in Tennessee. On the back of the cab I saw that the owner had painted a name in gothic gold letters: “Jezebel”. She was the evil queen of Israel who led her king away from the true religion. Songwriter Wayne Shanklin penned these words in 1951 (maybe he had owned an old truck):
“If ever the Devil was born
Without a pair of horns
It was you, Jezebel, it was you.
If ever an angel fell
It was you, Jezebel, it was you!”
You don’t see names like that written on Freightliner Cascadias. My Jezebel would have chrome stacks and a chrome bumper and a leather interior and all the latest electronics and creature comforts. Then I consider the high insurance costs and fuel costs and tires and oil changes and licensing fees and taxes, and most of all the unexpected repair bills that can easily wipe out a month of profits. I don’t want to go through what Ernie went through…
There once was a trucker named Ernie
Who wanted to own his own rig.
He saw all the others
They’re called ‘band of brothers’
And thought to himself ‘That’s for me!’
He searched through the papers
And found a good deal
On a Kenworth with shiny chrome stacks
He paid them with cash
Without looking back
And parked it with pride by his shack.
First it was tires,
Then it was diesel
And then it was all kinds of taxes.
Inspectors pursued him
And emptied his pockets
And breakdowns took all of his profits.
He started to wonder
“I’m gonna go under!
They’ll say it was Ernie’s big folly”.
Now he’s feelin’ just fine
‘Cuz he put up a sign
In his window: “For Sale”
2. Truck Stops
When I started driving I was a truck stop wimp. I parked in the remotest corner of the lot and avoided backing at all costs. I would much rather take a long walk to the restaurant than scrape another driver’s truck or bend a light pole. Experienced drivers maneuver skillfully around the truck stop and back up nonchalantly into a tight parking space and think nothing of it. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. After a few months and a lot of practice I began to feel more confident. But I still usually park at the far corner of the truck stop where it’s quiet and peaceful.
The truck stop in this photo is in downtown Las Vegas, as you can see. It’s a short walk to the big name casinos along the Vegas Strip. I’m sure that some drivers are attracted to the casino games, but I’ll bet that a lot more of them (including me) are attracted to the outstanding but moderately priced buffets.
3. First Coast-to-Coast Tour
From Fontana, CA, to Charleston, SC, on a two-week run.
4.Queen of the Shipping Dept
It isn’t hard to get a smile from the Queen of the Shipping Dept when you check in for your pickup – you just need to have the right numbers. Sometimes it is a P.O. number, or a Bill of Lading number, or some other number. The conversation at the check-in desk might go like this: She says, “What is your Pickup Number?” You say, “They didn’t give me a Pickup Number, but I have a Bill of Lading Number” and you read off the number. She says, “No, it needs to start with a six. Call your company.” After you call your dispatcher you go back to the Queen of the Shipping Dept. “Ok, here’s the Pickup Number.” Finally, she smiles and says “Put it in Dock 3. Go down that way and turn left…you’ll see the numbers.” Checking in is all about the numbers.
At a family-owned produce business in Imperial, Nebraska, the front office was run by three generations from one family: grandma, young momma, and The Boss. Big corporations may be the economic engine of our country but small businesses are the heart.
5. At the Loading Dock
I like the feeling when I’m sitting in my truck and they are loading the trailer. It’s like when I’m in the barber chair at Supercuts. I think it is the satisfaction of having people attend to you and all you have to do is sit there. Once I arrived at a customer location with a scheduled loading time of 1am. I got there on time, but they said it was going to take awhile to complete the loading – they were short-handed tonight. I snuggled into my bunk and looked forward to a nice short nap. Just as I started to nod off they started loading. For the next two hours I heard the SCREECH!… RUMBLE!…and BOOM!…as the forklift entered and exited my trailer. I didn’t get much sleep that night.
Your pickup or delivery location is usually a large warehouse. You first usually check in at the gate and then park and walk inside to the shipping office where you check in again for a dock door assignment for loading or unloading. A typical warehouse will have a hundred or more dock doors. When it’s busy it can be a challenge to maneuver in the congested and confined space. In downtown locations the maneuvering area for backing in and out of the dock is often very tight – every square foot of real estate is carefully measured off to use the bare minimum of wasted space, and the maneuvering area is often taken up by parked vehicles and stacks of pallets and landscaping “features” like boulders and bushes and boundary markers. Many a landscaping boulder has been given a new location by the bumper of an exasperated truck driver who is just trying to get up to the dock.
6. Low Bridges
There are a lot of bridges around the country that are too low for the standard semi trailer, which is 13’6″ tall. They’re often railroad bridges. I’ve encountered them in Fresno, Las Vegas, Memphis…all over. I found one this morning in Globe, Arizona, east of Phoenix. It was 13’5”. I spotted it about 200 feet to my right on the cross street as I went through an intersection.
When it’s truck vs. bridge the bridge always wins – the tractor stays connected to the trailer and the trailer gets crumpled like a soda can. The kingpin and trailer hitch are extremely strong. You better be wearing your seatbelt because you’re going to be thrown violently forward. The airbags won’t deploy – the sensors won’t be activated because you didn’t hit anything on the tractor. Usually the trailer absorbs the impact and the driver walks away. That’s a good ending for a very bad day at work.
7. Truck Routes
“Truck Route” is another sign we are always on the lookout for when we leave the relative safety of the freeway. Before I started truck driving, I never noticed these “Truck Route” signs. Now I see that they are very common. If you go down a street that is off the truck route, you are likely to be reported to the police by the local residents or get stopped by a police car – you could end up with a ticket and a large fine. And when you wander away from the approved truck routes you could easily find yourself on a dead end street where you can’t turn around, or you might come upon a curve that is too tight for your long trailer, or other unfortunate surprises.
8. Desert Dawn
Purple desert dawn.
Saguaro sentinels stretch.
Night thoughts disappear.
“What’s that!?” she asks.
“It’s called ‘haiku’,” I said. “It’s a traditional Japanese form of poetry: there are three lines – first one five syllables, second one seven syllables, and third one five syllables.”
“Haiku shmaiku,” she pretends to scoff, “just make ’em rhyme.”
“OK,” I say. (But I knew she liked it.)
9. Riding with the Rugrats
As I pulled off the interstate for our lunch break my two little pint-sized copilots, my temporary companions on this run, spotted a familiar sight on the corner. “Uncle Doug,” said the older and bolder one, “can we go to Cracker Barrel?” “Sure,” I said, and I pulled the rig into the generous parking area behind the restaurant. The cool air inside the restaurant defeated the humid summer heat as we settled into our booth. The two rugrats across the table from me squirmed impatiently as I studied the menu. I made my selection and handed them the menu. “The first one who finds a grammar or spelling error gets a free ice cream soda,” I said. They looked at each other for a moment and then their faces broadened into grins as they let out a “Psssh!” and dove into their task, leaning over the menu on their elbows with their butts waving in the air and their fingers tracing the lines of the menu. “I found one!” exclaimed David (he was always the first one to win our little game).
10. Snowbound at Eisenhower Tunnel
All the trucks had to chain-up at Silverthorne, Colorado, a few hours ago to be allowed to go up the hill to Eisenhower Tunnel. As I was chaining up I saw that some drivers didn’t have chains but they tried to go up anyway. The highway patrol gave them tickets. There were two highway patrol cars working the storm. I don’t know how those trucks got out of there since there was no exit and they weren’t letting anybody park on the shoulder.
While I was chaining up a highway patrol officer came by to see how it was going. He said I only had to put on one set of chains, on the rear drive axle, so I did that. It is critical to get the chains on tight using the cam lock tool that comes with a new set of chains. It rotates three curve-shaped cam locks, which takes up the slack in the chain. After the chains are on you have to drive slowly, to make sure that the chains don’t come off. I had to drive five miles like that. I would not have made it up the hill without the chains.
It also helped greatly, when starting up the hill from a dead stop, to turn on the Differential Lock switch, which makes both wheels on the drive axle turn together in lock mode instead of turning separately which is required for turns under normal conditions. Before I did that, when I gave it some gas to start out, the wheels just spun on the icy snow and the rig started to slide backwards a little (whoa!). As soon as I turned on the Diff Lock the wheels dug in and I started moving forward.
When I got to the tunnel entrance I found that they had just closed it due to an accident in the tunnel. I pulled in to the chain-up area near the tunnel entrance so that I would be able to see when they re-opened the tunnel. There were a dozen trucks there with me, waiting for the tunnel to re-open.
The snowplow driver at the tunnel entrance told me that if I didn’t want to wait for the tunnel to open I could go back to Silverthorne and take Loveland Pass instead of Eisenhower Tunnel, like the Hazmat trucks have to do. But I asked a former gasoline truck driver who was waiting with me at the tunnel entrance what he thought about that and he said “Don’t do it – Loveland Pass has a lot of curves with no guard rails”. (If you Google Earth “Loveland Pass Colorado” you’ll see how curvy it is.) As a matter of fact I passed a semi today on I-70 in Utah that had slid off the snow-covered road on a curve and slammed into the guard rail. I thought to myself, “No thanks, I won’t be taking Loveland Pass!”
After two hours I was still waiting for the tunnel to re-open along with all the other trucks in the chain-up area at the tunnel entrance. I’m glad I had topped off my tanks a few hours earlier – it was 20 degrees with light snow flurries outside, but it was nice and comfy in my warm cozy cab.
The light on the Eastbound Eisenhower Tunnel finally turned from red to green. I waited a few minutes for the line of trucks in front of me on the shoulder to move forward but nobody moved. I guess they were asleep. I pulled out onto the road and went to the head of the line and entered the tunnel. It was pretty cool to be the only vehicle in the long, straight tunnel – all the other traffic was still at the bottom of the hill. I maintained 20 mph – I didn’t want a chain to come off in the tunnel and have to stop and walk back for it in the traffic. A little further on I noticed a chain on the shoulder from an earlier truck – he probably didn’t know it came off, until he started sliding.
I made it to the chain-down area about five miles down the mountain and removed my chains. Note: be sure you unhook both the outside chain hook and the inside chain hook, otherwise the chain will wrap around the wheel hub between the dualies when you pull forward a little to get the chain out from under the tire (don’t ask me how I know that).
So now you know why a lot of companies don’t require their drivers to chain-up and keep rolling in a snowstorm. Some truckers and some freight dispatchers like to say “real men chain-up and keep rolling”. Well, when you consider the risk of sliding off the road, even with chains, and the danger of having your butt hanging out in the traffic when you’re putting them on, and the ungodly ordeal of putting them on and taking them off, usually in miserable weather conditions, I think the smart money is on the guys and gals who wait out the storm in their warm cozy cab, or take an alternate route.
I skinned the knuckles of my right hand while removing one of the chains. I had my gloves off for a few minutes because I needed my fingers. It’s no big deal, just a little souvenir (haha), my “red badge of courage” from my Eisenhower Tunnel adventure.
11. The New Pony Express
For the past two years I have had the privilege of making deliveries for the U.S. Postal Service. For me it is not an overstatement to say that it’s a privilege to make these mail runs. There is an almost patriotic sense about it. It’s expressed in the postman’s motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
As I watched them loading my truck at the LA post office the other night I saw that most of the packages were brown boxes of different sizes with computer-printed labels and bar codes. But every now and then I spotted one of those special packages, usually clumsily wrapped and addressed by hand, that might contain a present for someone special on the other side of the country. It’s easy to spot them among the other packages – they glow.
12. A Typical Mail Run
I give her a hug and say, “Thanks, dear.” She blinks a smile and goes back home after dropping me off at the truck. I throw my duffel bag into the truck and settle into the familiar drivers seat (I could find all the essential switches and levers in total darkness if I had to). I start the engine and let the brake pressure build to 120 PSI.The pressure relief valve goes “Pssshhh!” and kicks up some dust under the truck. I shift into gear and head to my first mail pickup.
It’s 2 am in the mostly sleeping town of Castaic, north of Los Angeles. I left the house several hours early so that I wouldn’t have to wake her up. I park in a quiet corner of the post office yard until my pickup time. Lying on my bunk I can hear the loading operations through the closed windows of my cab. The “boom…boom… boom” of the forklifts going in and out of the trailers sounds like distant bombs falling in a war zone.
At the appointed hour I open my trailer doors and back up to dock door 8 as usual. The dock supervisor, a slow-moving graybeard with a weary manner, finishes his smoke break outside the building and then shuffles back to his station. He calls for a forklift operator to load 10 large cardboard boxes filled with different sized packages into my trailer. He’ll be retiring within a couple of months. A younger Oriental man will replace him.
A female forklift driver with short-cropped black hair and baggy blue jeans and too many tattoos (for my old guy taste) pulls up to the loading dock. She greets me with a surprisingly polite announcement: “Beg your indulgence, sir – I’m gonna digress for one trip (finish another truck), then I’ll be back for you.” You never know when you’ll encounter a diamond in the rough.
She returns a little while later as promised and completes the loading in 10 minutes. The dock supervisor makes a sweeping motion with his hand. The simple wordless gesture tells me: “The loading is finished. Install your straps to secure the load, retract the loading ramp, close the dock door, and then pull forward and close the trailer doors and install the padlock. I’ll be out to seal it in a minute.”
He meets me at the rear of the trailer and installs the seal on the door latch. He glances up at me and says, with the slightest smile, “Drive safe.” I say, “OK, thanks” and depart for my second and final pickup, at the Central Avenue post office in Los Angeles. Then I’ll leave for Dallas.
I stop at the 24-hour McDonalds on Lyons Ave in Santa Clarita, strategically chosen for easy parking.I get a sausage and cheese muffin and coffee to go. It’s a proven fact that McDonalds has the best coffee, the tastiest fast food, the cleanest bathrooms, and the lowest prices on the interstate.
The freeway traffic is light at 4am. I take the Florence Ave exit on I-110 in downtown LA.I could take Gage Ave and save a couple of minutes but it’s not worth the aggravation and risk of the narrow street.
The gate guard at the LA post office signs me in.I pull up to my usual loading dock and repeat the loading procedure, which is similar to Castaic. There are some differences at every post office.It’s part of “learning the ropes.”It separates the clumsy and excitable new guys from the practiced and patient experienced drivers.
I depart with a full load of mail for Dallas (they send a full load of mail to Dallas every day).I take I-10 to Blythe, maintaining 60 MPH in California, and then I-10 and I-20 to Dallas, maintaining 70 MPH all the way to Dallas. I could legally maintain 80 MPH for long stretches of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas but, like most of the trucks, I maintain 65-70.
I fill up at the Arco truck stop in Quartzsite.The friendly and courteous young attendant doesn’t ask for my drivers license any more. John, the nighttime attendant, has lots of interesting stories from his former careers and hobbies.
I stop for a mandatory rest break at Deming, NM, near El Paso. I fall asleep immediately, after 11 hours behind the wheel. In the summer I keep the engine running during my rest break to stay cool.In the winter my sleeping bag keeps me warm. A lot of drivers have TV’s in their cab and most have laptops and like to watch movies or surf the web on their breaks. I like to sleep, and usually my tight schedule requires it – I like it that way.
I fill up at my usual no-name truck stop east of El Paso. The fuel at the many no-name truck stops along the interstate is much cheaper than the national chains like Pilot and Flying J and Petro, but there’s no TV lounge or trucker store or sit-down restaurant. The large trucking companies always use the big-name truck stops. The small companies and owner operators are usually trying to save every penny – they use the no-name truck stops and save 20-30 cents per gallon.
I stop at the Border Patrol Check Point near Van Horn, TX.They have sensors that can see the warm bodies hiding in my trailer, and German shepherds that can smell the drugs, so I have to be careful.
I stop at the Weigh Station in Lordsburg, NM. Mail is a lightweight load, so I’m not worried about being overweight. But I do have to keep the tires, brakes, permits, etc. in good condition or they could put me out of service. (Weigh stations provide a steady income for the mobile repair guys.)
Delivery at the post office near the Dallas-Ft.Worth Airport.I back up to my usual dock. An energetic young female Expediter with long brown hair pinned up on top of her head gives me a wave and a big smile from the dock (she’s one of those precious souls who give everyone a big smile). She’s wearing a Tee shirt and shorts and work boots. She cuts my seal and then I remove the padlock and open the trailer doors.I wait in the drivers seat until she gives me another wave to let me know they are finished unloading, then I’m on my way.
A relaxing late lunch at El Phenix Mexican restaurant, a few blocks from the post office, then a movie at the nearby movie theater, and then I park overnight at the back of the post office.
At 5am the next morning I pick up the mail for Los Angeles and Santa Clarita and head home.At the outskirts of Ft. Worth there’s a spot where the GPS says “Next exit Las Cruces/Deming 641 miles”. I’ll be there in ten hours for my midway break. I‘ll be home for three to four days, then do it all again.
13. A 130-degree Backing Pivot
When I checked in for my delivery at the LA post office they assigned me to Dock 38. I thought to myself, wearily, “Oh boy”. It’s the hardest dock to get into with a 53-foot trailer. It’s at the end of the building, so there’s no room for the normal docking maneuver where you pull forward past the dock alley and then make an easy 90-degree backing pivot into the dock. For Dock 38 you have to pull forward past the alley and then a little further around the corner and then pivot the trailer a full 130 degrees as you back up, while avoiding the pedestrian railing on one side and the fence on the other side. With great relief and satisfaction I managed to get it into the dock. I told Jerry, the shift supervisor, “They should give me a bonus for getting it into 38 (wink).” He flashed a toothy grin and said, “Oh yeah, they should! Some guys refuse that dock.” I said, “I know the trick.” (It’s the 130-degree pivot.)
14. My Favorite Trucks
My favorite trucks are the International Lonestar and the narrow nose Kenworth. When they pass by in the opposite direction on the freeway I start to salivate. The Freightliner that I drive is comfortable and it’s one of the most popular trucks on the road, but it’s not sexy like those two.
I also like a well-done customized rig. They’re usually an older Freightliner or Peterbilt with huge chrome bumpers and chrome exhaust stacks and chrome sun visors, and probably chrome cup holders. Inside they are customized to the tastes of the owner. Some are plush and luxurious, like a corner booth at the Lady Luck Casino. Others are as spartan and tidy as a Marine barracks. I would love to own a good looking custom rig like those, but it’s a huge investment and lots of headaches – it’s not for everybody. God bless ‘em.
15. Tucson Sunrise
Desert highways seem to be made for the early morning hours before sunrise. Today I’m driving in a purple twilight toward a golden horizon. When the sun comes up the shadows and wandering thoughts of the night evaporate. I’m filled with the promise of a new day.
On my mail runs from LA to San Antonio or Houston or Dallas I always would pass by this unusual stationary train. It was comprised entirely of retired Union Pacific locomotives. It was about two miles long! For years they pushed and pulled thousands of tons of freight all over the country. Now they were collecting dust in the dry desert air east of Tucson.
Driving past this location about a year later I discovered that all the locomotives were gone! Maybe they were just in storage until they could be refurbished and put back into service and now they are pushing and pulling again with a big smile on their noses like Thomas the Tank Engine, or maybe they were parted out and sold for scrap metal to China.
16. Driving with Daniel
West of Phoenix there is a little desert resort called Tonopah Hot Springs. Just inside the entrance gate and off to the side there is a quiet, peaceful desert garden. The garden is underneath an old wooden water tower. In the quietness around sunrise and sunset you can hear the tinkling sound of dripping water. Birds flutter in and out of the surrounding bushes. Soft breezes caress the tops of the reeds and acacia branches.
I sat down on a stone bench and Daniel sat down next to me. We let the peacefulness of the place sink in. After a few delicious minutes I felt a tug on my sleeve and heard someone say, “Uncle Doug?” I opened my eyes and smiled at Daniel and said “Ready to go?” He looked like he was relieved that I hadn’t fallen asleep, like I tend to do when I watch him play his video games.
As we walked back to the truck our eyes fastened on the gleaming metal machine that was eager to take us to any point of the compass. As Machiavelli instructed his princes, “Men, iron, money and bread are the necessities of (adventure), but of these, men and iron are the most important.”
Around noon I pulled into the McDonald’s in Blythe, California, for our lunch break. After shutting down the engine, we sat in the quiet cab for a few moments while I changed my duty status on the QualComm terminal. I noticed that Daniel had already logged into the McDonalds WiFi on his laptop. He was intently watching a YouTube video.
“What’s that about?” I asked. “Bullies,” he said, still staring at the screen. “Bullies?” I asked. Daniel looked at me and said “You know, bullies. They’re putting up posters about bullies at this school. “ He showed me the picture on the screen. “Are you having a problem with a bully?” I asked. “No, “ said Daniel, “I’m just watching a video.” It seemed like a good opportunity so I told Daniel my bullying story.
“ When I was 14 our family moved to a new town halfway across the country. It was a big change for all of us. It was my first year in a new high school and I didn’t know any of the kids yet. There was a bully in one of my classes – another boy who was a little bigger than me, but not that much bigger. He sat behind me, and every once in a while he would start tapping on the back of my head with his pencil.
When I turned around to see what he wanted he just glared at me and then he grinned at the other kids when he realized that I wasn’t going to do anything about it. I saw the other kids out of the corner of my eyes – they stared at me without any expression. Being a new kid in the school, I guess I felt like I was on my own. But that’s no excuse for not doing anything about it.” Daniel perked up a little when I said that. Maybe he had seen something like that happen to one of his friends, or maybe it had happened to him.
“Daniel, there are moments in a boy’s life that demand a courageous action. Well, I’m sorry to tell you that on that day I didn’t rise to the occasion. If I had known then what was at stake I would have stood up to that bully. But I didn’t. I just silently endured the pencil tapping.” Daniel was listening intently now. “I began to dread going to school. One day I felt so demoralized that I walked off the school grounds at lunch time and wandered down to the gas station and hung around there until it was time for school to get out and then I walked the rest of the way home. The school officials didn’t come after me and I don’t think my parents ever found out. I eventually completed the school year without any further incidents, but I never participated in any sports or other after-school activities. I think things would have been much different if I had stood up to that bully.”
Daniel nodded his head slightly and gave me an understanding look. “Daniel, if you ever find yourself in a situation like that, here is what I want you to do…” Daniel maintained his steady gaze on me. “…Wait until the teacher is in the room and then stand up straight and turn around and put on your angry face and shout at him in your loudest voice, “Knock it off!”. I paused for a moment and said, “Will you do that?” Daniel looked shyly at the ground and then he looked up at me and said, “OK, Uncle Doug.”
I put my hand on the shoulder of the little boy with the fawn-like temperament and said, “Don’t worry about getting in trouble – all the loving moms and dads and teachers and all the angels in heaven will be standing right behind you, whatever happens.” I looked at the floor for a moment to compose myself because I was shaking a little with emotion, and then I looked at Daniel. After a moment I said, “Well, let’s go have lunch.”
Just then I noticed something move across the grass just outside the truck. It was a big old Jack Rabbit. They are much taller than your typical bunny rabbit. They have a haggard Abe Lincoln look about them, all bone and gristle. Daniel followed my gaze and spotted the rabbit, and in the next instant he flung open the passenger-side door and jumped down from the top step and started chasing the rabbit.
They zigged and zagged for several moments at top speed all around the picnic tables. Finally the rabbit took an unbelievably huge leap into some bushes and disappeared. Daniel turned and looked at me with a big smile and raised his arms in a disarming shrug. I shrugged back at him and climbed down from the cab and we walked together into McDonalds.
We stopped for a break at a Rest Area near Palm Springs. Daniel noticed a truck driver giving his driving companion, a curly haired terrier, a drink of water at the fountain. He asked, “Uncle Doug, have you ever had a pet with you?”
I said, “No, my company doesn’t allow pets. It’s because we don’t always drive the same truck. So it’s important to keep the cabs as clean as we can. And that’s kind of hard to do with a pet.” Daniel nodded his understanding. “But one time I did have a little dog with me for awhile.”
Daniel perked up when I said that. “He was a little black and white puppy,” I said. “I found him one evening just before sunset at a rest area in Arizona. He was nosing around the trash cans.”
Now Daniel was listening intently. “He came over to me when I offered him some fresh water in a cereal bowl. I hung around for two hours at the rest area to see if his owners might return for him but nobody came around. I called the Highway Patrol to see if anybody had reported a lost puppy. They said ‘No’. So I told them that I was going to take him to the local animal shelter. I knew that if I left him at the rest area he would be coyote food before morning.”
Daniel asked, “Why would somebody leave a little puppy there like that?” I said, “I don’t know, Daniel. We don’t know what really happened. Maybe it was an accident.” Daniel looked concerned. I said, “I made a little bed for him on the passenger seat with a blanket. He seemed to be a real happy passenger. He would have been a good road dog – he never whined or got restless.”
“When we got to the shelter I carried him inside and turned him over to the people there. I checked back with them about a week later. They said he was adopted right away by a nice family with a little boy about your age.” Daniel stared at me for a long moment and then smiled. We headed back to the truck and continued on our trip.
After awhile I turned on the NPR radio program (it’s one of our favorites). Several scientists were talking about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). They were saying that since there are billions of stars in the universe, and since there are probably some planets like ours orbiting some of those stars, there’s a good chance that there is life on some of those planets, and some of those life forms might be intelligent – in other words, able to communicate with language and express thoughts and emotions.
I said to Daniel, “They’re saying that there is probably other intelligent life in the universe? What do you think about that?”
Daniel said, “If they’re like ET then they’re OK with me.” I smiled and reached over and gave Daniel a High Five.
Daniel said, “But how come we haven’t heard from them?”
“Well,” I said, “That’s a puzzle that the scientists haven’t figured out yet. I’ve heard some possible reasons, like maybe they are so far away that even if they are transmitting directly toward us our receiving antennas can’t hear them, or maybe we’re not listening to the right location in space.”
Daniel looked at me for a moment and then stared straight ahead.
“Here’s what I think,” I said. “I think there’s a whole range of other life forms out there, from simple single-cell creatures – that’s how life began here on Earth, you know – all the way up to various forms of intelligent life. And I think one day we’ll figure out how to communicate with them, and then it’s just a matter of time until we have the First Interplanetary Science Conference, at a space station in outer space.”
Daniel looked at me with a wonder-filled expression. I said, “You could become one of the scientists who makes the first contact!” Daniel stared at me for a moment and smiled.
“But if they’ve been watching us on The History Channel,” I said with a wink, “then they may not want anything to do with us!” (I was making a joke, but really, that may be the reason that we seem to be alone in the universe.)
It was beginning to get dark as we approached the outskirts of Phoenix. I checked to make sure that my headlights were on. Just then a little bunny rabbit sprinted across the road in front of us. It must be the flash of light that scares them out of the bushes by the side of the road. He ran across just in time for a fateful meeting with the tires of my second axle. I was thinking, “Another bunny spirit ascends to bunny heaven.” He would soon be dinner for a winged or four-footed scavenger. Daniel twisted around in his seat and looked behind us in the large mirror outside his window. He said, in a concerned voice, “Did we hit him, Uncle Doug?” I said, “I don’t think so. They’re pretty quick.” Daniel was relieved. And the circle of life rolled on.
It was almost 8 pm now, too late to do anything special like go to a movie, so we headed for the Pilot Truck Stop a few miles away near the Interstate. It’s one of my regular stops (I like their Church’s Chicken Tenders). I was lucky to find an easy pull-through parking spot. I parked the rig, did my post-trip inspection, and shut it down for the night. Daniel and I went inside and had a nice sit-down chicken dinner.
We returned to the truck, changed into our pajamas, and climbed into our bunks. Daniel sat silently in his bunk for a few moments and then he asked me if he could use my iPhone. He wanted to watch YouTubes for awhile. I said, “Sure.” I handed him the phone and said, “Good night, Daniel.” He said, “Good night, Uncle Doug.” I slipped under the covers and fell asleep almost immediately, as usual after a long drive.
The muffled sound of my iPhone alarm woke me up the next morning at 6 am. I almost didn’t hear it – it was under Daniel’s pillow. Daniel merely rolled over as I gently retrieved the phone. I got dressed and started the engine and turned on the heater to warm up the cab, and then started making breakfast for us. I heated water for my instant coffee on my single-burner camp stove (the little ring of eager blue flames always cheers up a chilly morning). I spoke a command to my iPhone, “Play playlist 1” and it started playing a tender melody by Simon and Garfunkel, ‘… in my little town…”
Now I heard rustling of covers from the top bunk. I said, “Good morning” and Daniel responded with a sleepy “Good morning.” I placed ten saltine crackers on a paper towel and spread them with peanut butter and put a dollop of strawberry jam in the middle of each one and covered them with another cracker. I retrieved the two bananas and the two Geyser Spring waters from Ellen’s picnic sack. Daniel climbed down and sat next to me on my bunk and we enjoyed our breakfast.
Homer and Bart on the Road
(Homer read about how the early observers first realized that the world was round by the way, for example, you see a ship’s mast before you see the rest of the ship, as it approaches you on the horizon…)
“You know, Bart, you can learn a lot from readin’ books. Like, when you’re climbin’ a hill and you see a truck comin’ over the top of the hill in the other direction, and first you see the top of the truck, and then you see the middle of the truck, and then you see the whole truck? That’s how we know that the world is round!”
“Uh…OK, Dad…..What do ya think, Sis?”
17. THE LIGHTER SIDE
There are several important skills you have to use when you’re driving a big rig, such as checking your mirrors during turns, always knowing what is around you, and being familiar with your equipment. When you forget these things it often results in a serious or even tragic situation. But sometimes there is a lighter side.
There She Blows!
He was going to make a right turn around a corner in Long Beach but then he realized the turn was too tight for his 53-foot-long trailer. So he changed his mind and continued straight ahead. Unfortunately his right-side trailer wheels were slightly up on the curb as he approached a fire hydrant on the edge of the sidewalk. His trailer tire caught the hose nipple on the fire hydrant and snapped off the hydrant like a pretzel stick. The geyser went 50 feet in the air. Shopkeepers and customers came out of the surrounding businesses and stared in amazement at the spectacle. Some of them were applauding! A fire department crew arrived within five minutes. They turned off the water and installed a new hydrant. The driver had pulled over about a block up the street. He watched all the excitement in his rear view mirror and then went on his way. (True story, told to me by another driver who shall be nameless.)
Don’t Look Now, But…
He made a late night delivery around Christmas time at a small town in central California. On his way out he made a wrong turn and found himself driving down the cheerfully decorated Main Street, passing under strings of Christmas lights from one end of town to the other. At the edge of town his 13’6″ trailer barely squeaked under a 13’8″ railroad bridge. He breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that he had made it through the gauntlet. Unfortunately when he looked in his rear view mirror he discovered to his horror that he was trailing a long string of Christmas lights! He quietly pulled over to the shoulder and unhooked the lights and laid them by the side of the road and went on his way.
What’s That Smell?
He pulled into the sewage treatment plant with a full load of raw sewage in his tanker. He was a new tanker driver fresh out of truck driving school. He figured tankers would be better than dry vans or flat beds. For one thing he wasn’t very good at backing. That’s what you do all day with a dry van. He almost never had to back his tanker. And tarping and untarping a flatbed looked like a heck of a lot of work: get out the heavy tarps, lift them up on top of the load (imagine that in an icy cold rain), strap them down from end to end…over and over. No thanks, he thought, I’ll drive this nice, easy tanker truck. He pulled up to the sewage facility tank and got ready to hook up his hose. Unfortunately he forgot to open the pressure relief valve first. When he opened the flow valve high pressure sewage sprayed everywhere – all over the tank, all over the tanker, and especially all over himself. After taking a long hot shower and changing into a new set of clothes he laid down on his bunk and did some serious thinking about maybe taking some backing lessons. (True story, told to me by my truck driving instructor in CDL school.)
Billboard on I-35 in Oklahoma:
(Jason Lawless. For Sheriff. Really?)
Billboard on I-10 Freeway in Los Angeles:
(They should have added: “We haven’t heard any complaints.)”
18. Ghosts at the Getty
Whenever I pick up and deliver mail at the central post office in Los Angeles I drive past the magnificent Getty Museum on I-405 near Sunset Boulevard. There’s a rumor among the guards at the Getty that after the last guest has gone home and the gates have closed and the garden lights have gone out a gathering of ghostly characters appears in the galleries, dressed in painter’s smocks and sculptor’s aprons. They gaze intently at the works of art and then press into them with their painter’s brushes and sculptor’s tools, but to no effect (because they are ghosts). If you ask the guards what they make of this they will tell you, “We guess they are the restless spirits of the artists, who just want to add one more little improvement, one more heartfelt expression, to their masterpieces.”
19. The Warehouse Rooster
When I arrived at the Houston post office to pick up my “Number 6” load I thought I heard a rooster crowing inside the warehouse: “Eh…uh eh…uh ehhhhh.” Some of the post offices play recordings of screeching birds of prey to discourage birds from nesting in the rafters. But a rooster? So I went looking for the source of the sound. It was one of the postal workers! She was yelling to a co-worker on the other side of the warehouse in a shrill high-pitched voice: “Get…dee…num…buh…seeekssss”.
20. Highway Patrol
Those distinctive red and blue flashing lights came into view on the shoulder up ahead. Muscle memory directed my foot to the brake pedal as I merged over to the left lane. My previous train of thought moved obligingly to a side track in the back of my mind as I dealt with the slowing traffic. It came to the front again after we passed the incident and the normal traffic flow resumed. It was just another guy (it’s always a guy) in another red Ferrari (it’s always red) getting another speeding ticket.
Those distinctive red and blue flashing lights came into view on the shoulder up ahead. Muscle memory directed my foot to the brake pedal as I merged over to the left lane. My previous train of thought moved obligingly to a side track in the back of my mind as I dealt with the slowing traffic. It came to the front again after we passed the incident and the normal traffic flow resumed. It was just another guy (it’s always a guy) in another red Ferrari (it’s always red) getting another speeding ticket.
21. Listening to Music
Here are two of my favorite Jackson Browne songs:
From The Pretender, where he sings about the working man and other things:
“Gonna pack my lunch in the morning
And go to work each day
And when the evening rolls around
I’ll go on home and lay my body down
And when the morning light comes streaming in
I’ll get up and do it again, Amen.”
It reminds of when I had the good fortune to capture my dream job early in my career, 43 years ago. I rented a tiny $300/month apartment near the airplane factory in Burbank. I went to work on the first day all bright-eyed and eager to please. What a thrill it was to be part of that industry, and for 35 years it never went away.
From The Load Out, where he thanks his crew, the hard-working low-paid roadies who set up and take down his show on the road:
“Now the seats are all empty
Let the roadies take the stage
Pack it up and tear it down
They’re the first to come and the last to leave
Working for that minimum wage
They’ll set it up in another town.”
The Load Out:
Here is a charming version of Paul McCartney’s “ Blackbird”, sung in the native American Mi’kmaq language by high school student Emma Stevens from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. When her Native American father heard her perform it, in his own language, he was moved to tears: http://www.youtube.com/watch…
I like to listen to reviews of new musical artists on NPR’s “Fresh Air” radio program (often they are not “new” artists, they are just not yet well-known) . Here are three of my favorites, with some of their intriguing and moving lyrics.
“Green Willow Valley” by The Handsome Family:
“There are rivers underground rushing cold and wild,
And I am calling out to you across the lonely night:
Inflated bag of Cheetos at Deming NM (elev 4,500 ft)
I picked up a load of snack chips at a factory in eastern Oregon and took them to Los Angeles. The shipper said “Don’t go over 7,000 feet or the bags will pop.” The bags expand as you go higher because there is less air pressure as you go higher. The bags are sealed to keep the chips fresh, so eventually they will pop if you go too high. I Googled the elevations of the mountain passes along the route, which was mostly along I-15. Everything was fine until I came upon an accident scene with a long backup near Salt Lake City. I didn’t want to wait, possibly for hours, and be late for my delivery so I chose an alternate route that looked like it would be OK as far as elevations. I went through two passes that turned out to be close to 7,000 feet and one that was 7,100. I was really sweating it, imagining that I would start hearing ‘pop…pop…pop’ from behind the cab at any moment. I guess I lucked out, because I completed the delivery in Los Angeles and never heard anything further about it.
23. Emergency Road Service
I finished backing into my overnight parking spot at the post office in Dallas and pushed the button to move the Freightliner’s automatic transmission from Reverse to Neutral. But to my dismay the transmission stayed in Reverse! I turned the engine off and then turned the master battery switch off and back on. This has fixed glitches like this in the past, but no luck this time. And now the engine wouldn’t even re-start. I slumped in my seat and groaned as I realized that I was stuck with a truck that wouldn’t start or shift gears – and I have a mail pickup in eight hours.
I like my automatic transmission, especially in stop and go traffic, but occasionally it gives me exasperating problems like this one. The dashboard display said “ECU 1”, which Google said was a “problem with the Engine Comtrol Module (ECM) – check wiring.” The ECM is the truck’s computer brain. I raised the hood and checked the wiring in several locations and found no obvious problems. That was the limit of my electrical troubleshooting skills. So I called the “trucker’s best friend” – the Emergency Road Service.
The mechanic arrived an hour later and hooked up his laptop to the diagnostic connection under the steering wheel. After a few minutes he said he had managed to clear several ECM faults but he couldn’t clear the one that was keeping the engine from starting. He said it would have to be towed to the shop. That meant I would miss my pickup appointment and lose my $650 driver pay, and I would have a $200 towing charge and a big repair bill at a strange shop. I asked the mechanic, “Is there any way you can bypass the ECM and just get it started?” For a moment he seemed surprised at the suggestion, then he walked around to the right side of the engine and took a little thingamajig out of his pocket and touched the wires to the starter. There was a small spark and then the 425 HP Detroit Diesel roared to life. I gave him a Texas-sized smile. He said, “You’ll need to keep it runnin’ to wherever you’re goin’ – it aint gonna re-start”. I said, “I know, it’s ok.” Later he showed me the “secret” thingamajig: it was just a piece of insulated wire about a foot long with the insulation removed on each end! He showed me where to place the ends of the wire – two terminals on the starter and frame. Now I know how to hot wire a Freightliner! The ignition switch must be on, so you still need the key.
I paid him $325 (seems outrageous, doesn’t it) and said “Thanks” and he drove off into the sunset. Then I went to sleep in the truck. I kept the engine running continuously through the night and through my pickup the next morning and the 1,400 miles back to LA and my two deliveries and then to our repair shop in LA. Marathon engine runs like this are not unusual in the long-haul trucking business, especially in the winter when it’s often the only way to stay warm in the sleeper berth.
24. Houston Storm
I completed my mail delivery at the Post Office facility on Aldine Bender Road on the north side of Houston and then parked for the night at the Express Fuel truck stop. It was pouring rain with thunder and lightning. I love to sleep in the cab in the rain. The steady patter of the raindrops on the metal roof is Mother Nature’s lullaby. This is a photo of the building storm as I entered the Houston area. It was a deadly storm. Earlier in the day nine Army soldiers at nearby Fort Hood drowned when their military vehicle overturned in the flood waters of the Brasos River during a training exercise.
A street vendor came to my table in the Mexican restaurant where I was eating dinner after my mail delivery. She was selling flavored popcorn balls on a stick for a couple of dollars. I politely said, “No thank you”. She moved quietly from table to table and then stopped at the cashier’s counter where the store owner, a middle aged Hispanic woman, purchased one of the popcorn balls with a gracious smile. Then the street vendor continued her rounds further down the street. I asked my waitress about it, because I haven’t seen this before, and she said, “Oh yes, we know her. She supports her family selling those. She just bought a car.” (It was an interesting glimpse into another culture right here in the good old USA.)
25. Through Yellowstone
I delivered a nice light load from Ogden, Utah, to Billings, Montana. (A light load is much better than a heavy load because you don’t have to constantly shift and brake to negotiate the climbs and descents. You get paid the same either way.) My company-specified route took me through part of Yellowstone National Park along U.S. 191. This highway is usually busy with vacationers, tour busses, and semi’s. But at 6am on September 25 I had it all to myself for long stretches, as you will see in the photos. I didn’t get to see Old Faithful or the other attractions of the park due to my tight delivery schedule, but I had the good fortune to see them several years ago on a vacation with my family.
After my delivery in Billings, I picked up a load in Missoula, Montana, near the headwaters of I-15, and delivered it in Saint Joseph, Minnesota. This run took me through The Badlands of North Dakota. It is an awesome place, too. It’s like a mini Grand Canyon, with more trees and bushes. My amateur photos don’t do justice to the scenery that I see on the road.
A few days ago I picked up a load in Casa Grande, AZ, to deliver to a location in Southern California. I started to head toward the I-17 freeway entrance, which joins up with I-10 in Phoenix, and then I thought to myself, why don’t I take AZ 84 instead of the freeway for awhile, and bypass the traffic of metro Phoenix. It was a good decision. A few miles west of Casa Grande I was delighted to have to pull over and watch for a few minutes while a team of shepherds in blue jeans and cowboy hats, and two very skillful and commanding sheep dogs, led a herd of several hundred sheep across the highway from one pasture to another.
26. Concert in the Park
My wife and I attended a Concert in the Park on Sunday night. An acquaintance named John spotted me from a distance and waved and I waved back. We have been friendly like that ever since we sat next to each other at a cub scout campfire several years ago. John was throwing a football around with his youngest son who I think is about 10. Before each throw the boy would run up to John and eagerly wait for the next play, such as “cut left, then right, then turn for the catch”. As soon as John said the play the boy would grin from ear to ear and take off running. He missed most of the throws. Then he would run after the tumbling ball and scoop it up and throw it back in the general direction of his dad. One time his throw went way to the side. As John started walking to retrieve the ball the boy raced over to it and picked it up and handed it to John. He looked up at his dad with adoring eyes that said “Sorry for the bad throw” and “Thanks for playing with me, Dad.” I’m gonna find our old football when I get home from this run. I know it’s somewhere in the garage.
27. An American Aristocrat
Like most drivers I have always preferred to drive solo, but one time when I had to drive with someone else I was rewarded with a remarkable story.
My new team driver, Bob Franklin, and I pulled in to Denny’s for a quick breakfast. We sat down at the counter and Bob grabbed a menu from the holder while I fumbled for my reading glasses. I started to reach for a menu but Bob, having already made his selection, handed me his menu and said, “Be my guest, Sir Douglas.”
I joined in the joke and said, “Why thank you, Sir Robert!”
Bob grinned and leaned toward me and said, in a confidential tone, “You know, when they were reading the roster this morning I didn’t wanna make a fuss or nuthin’ but they didn’t say my name exactly right.”
“Oh?” I said. “How’s that?”
“They shoulda said “Sir Robert Franklin,” said Bob, emphasizing the “Sir”.
I stared at the somewhat ragged-looking man with the grease-stained hands, trying to size up what kind of lunatic I was dealing with. Then Bob said, “You see, I’m a direct descendant of Benjamin Franklin.”
I lowered my reading glasses to the bridge of my nose and continued staring at Bob.
“Dr. Franklin was a diplomat to England, among other things. To reward him for his great contributions to American and British diplomacy the British gave him the honorary title of “Sir Benjamin Franklin, Duke of Bridgewater”. (I wasn’t sure if that was true, but it sounded faintly believable from what I recall from my high school days so I kept quiet and Sir Robert went on.)
“And since I’m his direct descendant I figure that by rights I’ve inherited that title, too.”
I gave Bob a skeptical look and started to say that I didn’t think it worked that way, but I decided to hold my tongue (that is often the wisest course of action). If it was true then he would be deeply offended if I questioned his veracity. If he was just making up a story then why not go along for the fun of it. I said, “That’s very interesting, Sir Robert!”
As we rolled along Sir Robert described the historical locations and activities of the Franklin family who inhabited parts of Pennsylvania and Delaware, two of the first American colonies. He was justly proud of his connection with the Franklins, especially their most famous son, Benjamin.
I never saw Bob again after that trip. That’s how it goes some times. But I’ve come to appreciate how fortunate I am for having briefly known Sir Robert Franklin, a true (I think) American aristocrat.
I delivered a Walmart load from Los Angeles to Reno via US 395. This is a very scenic route through the high desert and mountains of the Eastern Sierra Nevada. When you’re winding through the narrow canyons on this route you have to be mindful of “trailer cheating.” That’s when the rear end of your 53-foot trailer tracks further to the inside of the curve than the front end. You have to steer towards the outside of the curve (without crossing the center line), otherwise an outcropping of rock might rip into the side of your trailer, like the iceberg that sank the Titanic.
Another potential problem with trailer cheating is the twisting effect that can occur when you are going around a down-sloping freeway on ramp. If you aren’t careful to keep your trailer wheels on the paved surface of the on ramp as you go around the curve you may end up with a slight twist between the tractor and the trailer when you reach the flat part of the on ramp at the bottom of the curve. This can raise the left or right-side tractor drive wheels just enough to make them lose all their traction. You will be stuck there, unable to move forward or backward, unless you are able to extricate yourself using the differential lock switch, or if that fails, by placing boards or a broken piece of concrete or whatever you can find at hand to jam under the drive tires. (Been there, done that.)
30. Snowstorm in Iowa
It started snowing shortly after sunset as I drove through farm country on I-29 in western Iowa. I was heading towards my fuel stop and rest break in Council Bluffs. I slowed to 40 mph in 9th gear and pressed on in spite of the snow, anxious to avoid being stuck in the boonies with low fuel in the middle of an Iowa winter. There were no steep grades or mountain passes on this stretch so I didn’t have to chain-up, thankfully. After about an hour I reached my destination – a small truck stop with a Subway restaurant and a 24-hour gas station. Fortunately there were still two truck parking spaces open.
When there are no spaces left at the truck stop (it’s almost always first come-first served for truck parking) my next choice is usually a Walmart Supercenter because they are open 24 hours and they have clean bathrooms and they often have a McDonalds or Starbucks inside. If there are no truck stops or Walmarts I look for a Home Depot or Lowes – they will usually let you park overnight if you don’t get in the way of their store operations and there are usually fast-food or Denny’s restaurants nearby. Last choice is a freeway Rest Area – they fill up fast with trucks after 8 pm and there are no restaurants.
Parked for the night at a Walmart
I slept soundly with the engine running to stay warm in the sub-freezing temperatures. I had planned to continue driving at 4 am the next morning to try and make my delivery on time, but when I pulled back the cab curtain I saw an all-white parking lot and snow was still swirling under the streetlights. I sent a message to the planners to let them know I would wait until daylight and then assess the driving situation. They were OK with that. At daylight I fired up the rig and proceeded slowly out of the parking lot. The streets were plowed and I had no trouble making my way to the I-29 on-ramp. I pressed on towards my delivery in Sioux City, Iowa, holding my speed down to 40 mph.
Most of the other big rigs proceeded cautiously like me, but a few of them blew past in the left lane. I passed three abandoned cars and two big rigs that had skidded off the highway during the night. They were stuck in the deep snow and muddy ground at the center of the grassy median. Both of the big rigs were jackknifed. The drivers were probably going too fast and had made some unfortunate driving error, such as a sudden lane change, that might have been forgiven on a clear day. But on the slippery road last night it ended up with the trailer trying to pass the tractor. There didn’t appear to be any other vehicles involved. They will have an expensive towing bill and there may be more serious consequences for their truck driving careers. After two plodding hours I arrived at my destination and completed my delivery.
31. Nebraska Potato Run
I picked up a load of potatoes right out in the potato field in the small farm town of Imperial, Nebraska. They loaded the freshly dug potatoes into the end of my trailer with a system of conveyor belts on wheels. The operator moved it deep into the trailer as they started loading and backed it out toward the end of the trailer as the loading proceeded. When it was full I drove to a nearby potato processing plant and parked the truck and trailer on a hydraulically-driven inclined platform. They raised the whole truck and trailer to a 45-degree angle and the potatoes tumbled into the hopper while I stood and watched from outside. Cuts and bruises were not a problem – these were destined to become mashed potatoes!
32. Roadside Inspections
A few days ago I was pulled in for a random one-hour safety inspection at a Weigh Station near Fargo, North Dakota. These are performed by the Commercial Enforcement officers of the Highway Patrol. They inspect your lights, brakes, tires, and a dozen other items on the tractor and trailer, as well as check the expiration date on your Commercial Drivers License, medical certificate, tractor registration, trailer registration, and a bunch of permits that you carry for certain types of cargo. It is a real nail-biting time for drivers, because they can put you out of service on the spot for not passing any one of the many inspection items.
About six months ago I failed one of these inspections in Reno. The officer found that my trailer brake lights were not working. That is a common item to “forget” on your pre-trip inspection, because if you are by yourself you cannot easily check it – you have to apply the brake inside the cab and at the same time go to the back of the trailer and see if the brake lights go on. (I have since learned that the trick is to put something heavy, like a gallon jug of water, against the brake pedal to hold it On while you go back and check the brake lights.) The inspector put me out of service. Ordinarily I would not have been able to move the truck until it was repaired. But this officer was nice enough to offer to escort me to my customer location, which I told him was only about a mile down the road. I completed my delivery on time, and then I called our emergency repair service and they came over from our terminal in Reno and fixed the brake light problem.
On this occasion in Fargo, North Dakota, I passed all the inspection items. I sent a message to my Driver Leader informing him that I passed the inspection and that I would be making my delivery on time. My Driver Leader sent a message back, “Great job, Douglas. Keep up the good work.” (He calls me Douglas, like my wife.) It’s a great day when you pass a safety inspection.
33. Revisiting Gravel Pond
Childhood memories of small family farms and patches of forest and rolling hills on the far horizon played like a silent movie through my windshield as I drove through northeastern Pennsylvania. I was filled with anticipation as I approached the freeway exit. I could almost hear my brother and sister calling me, “Let’s play hide and seek!”
I was on one of my first runs. It reminded me of summer vacation trips many years ago. Our family and two of my uncles’ families shared a rustic two-story cottage on Gravel Pond near Scranton, PA. We went there several weekends each year and sometimes for a whole week, when my brother and sister and I were young kids.
The cottage had no running water – we pumped water from a well using a big pump handle in the kitchen. There were no bathrooms – we used an outhouse in the back yard. There was no TV and no movie theaters or fast food restaurants or swimming beaches or any other type of entertainment. We splashed in the pond and played Hide and Seek and Tag during the day and we played board games for hours and hours in the evenings. We captured dozens of fireflies in Mason jars and put them on the mantle and then turned out all the lights. We caught crawdads – little crab-like creatures that lived among the stones at the edge of the pond. We would run in to the house with them wriggling in our fingers and show them to Mom and Dad. Mom would scream, “Ewww!”. Then we would laugh and run back and throw them in the pond. The crawdads loved it
34. Into the Heartland
Our son, David, is with me for this three-week tour. Leaving from Los Angeles we have gone as far east as Lake Michigan and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. We have made pickups and deliveries or overnight stops in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Arkansas. One of my favorite places was the Flint Hills of Kansas near Witchita. It is a rolling sea of green prairie grass from horizon to horizon, dotted with fat happy cows. We had a wonderful visit with my sister Ellen, brother John, and brother-in-law Kevin in Janesville, Wisconsin. We sleep in the truck in bunk beds (like summer camp). For breakfast we have toasted bagels with peanut butter, bananas, and mango pineapple juice. I toast the bagels and heat water for my instant coffee on a small Coleman camp stove. For lunch and dinner (usually just one or the other because of my irregular driving schedule), we go to the truck stops. They usually have MacDonald’s, Wendy’s, or Subway.
35. Time Travelers
I listened to an excellent audio book this week on my mail run to Houston: “The Joy of Science” by Dr. Robert Hazen. It is a series of easy-to-follow lectures that summarize many of the most important ideas in biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy and other scientific subjects. One of the topics, for example, is Time Travel. Dr. Hazen explained that thanks to discoveries by Albert Einstein and others we now know that time travel is in fact quite possible. There’s just one hitch – you have to travel at close to the speed of light (186,000 miles per second)! So far, for humans at least, that is still quite impossible.
A couple of months ago I managed to locate and contact several of my cousins through Facebook. For some of them it was our first contact in more than 40 years! In that span of years we have lived half a lifetime – careers, marriages, children, and all the rest – oblivious to each others’ personal journeys. I suppose that is a common scenario for many families that end up dispersed all over the country. In my mind there was a great gap, from memories of our youth to (blink) our grey-haired present. Time seems to pass so quickly some times. I felt like the time traveler who journeys to outer space and returns a month later and finds that everyone else is now 40 years older!
36. Detroit Trucks
What is different about this truck?
Answer: it has a lot of extra wheels. I spotted this one while driving through Detroit. According to an anonymous Internet expert, “Henry Ford fought for and won the right to increase the weight of the shipments of steel that was needed in his factories. In order to support the extra weight there needed to be more axles.” These “Michigan Rigs” are also allowed in the northern most sections of Ohio and Indiana, near the Michigan border.
37. Sliding the Tandems
One of the things you do frequently is slide your trailer box back and forth on the slider rails to distribute the weight of your load over the three sets of axles. For some unknown reason they chose to call this “sliding the tandems” even though the tandem axles never actually move – it’s the trailer box that moves back and forth on the slider rails, which are located above the tandem axles at the rear of the trailer. When you slide the tandems forward (push the trailer box back), you move weight to the tandem axles at the rear end of the trailer. When you slide the tandems backward (pull the box forward), you move weight to the drive axles behind the tractor. Each hole on the slider rails counts for about 250 pounds, so to move 500 pounds, for example, from the drive axles to the tandem axles you would lock the trailer brakes, pull out the tandem slider release handle, and then push the trailer box backward two holes. If you don’t do this you could get a ticket when you go through the weigh station, which could cost you any where from 50 bucks to thousands of dollars.
38. Out of Cash and Out of Luck
I once helped a young driver at a truck stop in Houston who was in that predicament – out of cash and out of luck. I gave him a few dollars when he came to my door. As I watched him go around to the other trucks at the truck stop I wondered what other calamities he might get himself into…a door left unlocked…a load too heavy…a turn too tight…a curve too fast…a bridge too low…
39. CB Radios
CB radios are no longer as popular as they used to be. One experienced driver told me, “In the old days we used them all the time, to check on traffic up ahead, watch out for Smokeys (Smokey Bears, aka Highway Patrol officers)… but now I hardly ever use it – it’s just a paperweight. Half the time you can’t get anybody to answer you, and the rest of the time it’s just trash talk.” I have never had a CB in my truck, and I haven’t missed it. Occasionally you will arrive at a customer location and you’ll see a sign that says something like “Drivers call on CB 12 for instructions”. But when you pull up to the gate and tell them you don’t have a CB they just ask you for your cell phone number, or they say “Wait over there”, and then they wave at you or come get you when it’s your turn to go in.
We call those cast-off tire treads that you see along the shoulder “gators”, because if you run over them they could slap up and bite off your flexible brake lines under the trailer. If that happens you won’t lose all your brake pressure immediately – you will have time to get off the road onto the shoulder – but you will soon be dead in the water with a locked set of brakes until the repair truck arrives.
41. Away for Thanksgiving
Things don’t always go as planned when you’re on the road. You may have changes in your load assignment, or mechanical problems, or weather problems, among other things. Once I had to call my wife and tell her I wouldn’t be home on time for our usual Thanksgiving dinner. “But I did see a wild turkey!” I told her. I was just outside of Cantonville, near Scatter Creek, in northeast Texas. The big bird was strutting around by the side of the road.
42. Idaho Beer Run
I delivered a truckload of beer in cans and kegs from a brewery in Los Angeles to Twin Falls, Idaho. It was a long hot grind up Highway 93, one of the loneliest roads in the west but the mountain scenery was magnificent. When I rolled into town on a scorching August day I imagined the townspeople would be lining the streets, cheering wildly and shouting “The beer is here! The beer is here!”
43. American Commerce
When I’m driving I often have the satisfying feeling that I’m part of the great organism known as American Commerce. Yesterday I delivered a load of merchandise from a Walmart distribution center in Los Angeles to a Walmart distribution center in Loveland, Colorado. In the process I crossed the Mojave Desert on I-15 and the Rocky Mountains on I-70. Today on this bright November morning I’m picking up a load of waste paper at a recycling center in Boulder, Colorado. I’ll be taking it to a paper plant in Prewitt, New Mexico, near the Navajo Reservation. Tomorrow I’ll deliver 1000-pound rolls of paper from the paper plant to a manufacturer in Los Angeles.
44. Pacific Northwest
One of my favorite regions of the country is the Pacific Northwest. It has a personality as distinct as the barren wide-open spaces of the southwest and the concrete canyons of the industrial northeast. On a hot July afternoon, I checked out my assigned truck at the company yard in Mira Loma, CA, and then sent this message to my Driver Manager: “Tractor 308578 is OK. Ready to go. Open to all 48 (north would be nice).” He responded right away with a load to Ridgefield, WA, just north of Portland, to begin my two-week road trip.
I picked up a load of wood chips at a saw mill in northwest Oregon. I arrived the night before and parked in the yard behind the mill. In the morning I started the engine to heat up the cab and then I made a cup of coffee with my single-burner camp stove. As I pulled up to the front of the yard to check in, my tires made fresh tracks in the light snowfall that fell during the night.
They loaded the bags of sawdust on pallets into my truck with a forklift. I had to back up to a portable loading ramp across a wet and icy dirt yard which was covered with crushed stone where the trucks operate. The loading ramp was narrower than the rear end of my trailer, so after I started backing toward it at some point I could no longer see the ramp in my mirrors – I had to rely on the forklift driver to spot me. He let me back all the way to the ramp, and then gave me hand signals that said “move a foot to the right”. I don’t have a switch on my dashboard for that, so I pulled forward about fifty feet to get some maneuvering room, turned the steering wheel to the left (to move the trailer to the right) and backed up to the ramp again. This time he was happy with the alignment and he proceeded with the loading.
After loading, I headed south on Highway 30 towards Scapoose, Oregon. Smoke from a saw mill went up straight and white in the morning air. The highway followed close by the Columbia River on my left. Under the gray clouds the river was a dull mirror reflecting the barges and houseboats along its banks.
I drove through the Columbia River Gorge to my pickup in Boardman, Oregon. I admired the eagles and hawks that I would see sitting by themselves in the high branches of the trees along the road. For long periods they look out over the land and water from their high perch – silent, solitary, and self-possessed. I have seen eagles like these swoop down and snatch a fish out of the water with their talons.
45. The Heart of Darkness
Toward sunset I was heading south on I-5 in northern California when something happened that ended the monotony of the drive. Near Mount Shasta I came to a fork in the road, both on the map and in my mind. The GPS said to turn left and take Highway 89 through the forests of northern California, to join up with Highway 395 south. I was surprised because I thought up to that point that I would be taking I-5 all the way to Los Angeles. I had to stop and think about this. On one hand, it was an approved truck route that was heavily traveled by 18-wheelers, and it would be much more interesting than I-5. On the other hand, it would be 150 miles at nighttime through dense forests on a deserted road that I’ve never been on before. After a few moments I made up my mind – I doubled back about six miles to the Pilot truck stop and topped off my tanks, and then I turned left into the Heart of Darkness.
For many miles there were no other travelers on the highway, either in front or in back of me. The moonlight illuminated the tops of the pine trees on either side of the road and the black ribbon of highway in front of me. The music on the radio matched my mood as I made my way apprehensively through the forest: an exhilarating rock song, a regretful country music song, a mystical fog-shrouded Irish folk song.
After about two hours I came to a good-sized turnout near Feather Lake where two other trucks were parked for the night. I parked well off the road and shut down. The temperature was 18 degrees Fahrenheit. The cab heater and my sleeping bag kept me comfortable and I enjoyed a sound sleep. In the morning I was treated to a light snow shower which dusted the road just enough to make it picturesque but not enough to cause any driving problems.
Parking in isolated places like this always reminds me of the story that John Steinbeck told in Travels with Charley. He described how camping alone at night in a desolate location would make him imagine that ghosts and other “spirits of the night” might be lurking in the shadows. But he had a special charm that would ward off evil spirits. He said that years ago there was an old Filipino man who worked on his family’s ranch in California. He said he wondered if being a Filipino, a distant and unknown culture to him, perhaps gave the old man some mysterious knowledge of how to ward off evil spirits, so he asked him about it.
The old Filipino man said he had a special charm that was given to him by a Filipino witch doctor. John asked him to show him the charm, thinking that it must be some kind of object, but the Filipino man said it was a “word charm”, and then with great solemnity he looked upward and dramatically spoke the words: “In nomine Patris et Fillii et Spiritus Sancti.” The words are in Latin, from the ending of a Catholic liturgy. It means “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” John was deeply moved and impressed by the old man’s earnest demeanor. He suspected that the Filipino witch doctor who told the word charm to the old man had probably heard the words spoken by the Catholic priests in their church services, without knowing what the Latin words meant, and the witch doctor had attributed special powers to the mysterious words. The witch doctor offered them to the old Filipino man and to the rest of his tribal “congregation” as a charm against evil spirits, and for him, and for the rest of the believers, no doubt they were. John thanked the old Filipino man for his special charm. In his travels John always slept soundly through the night, and so do I.
46. A Nice Little Business
Imagine you are in the passenger seat of my Freightliner truck. You have a fresh cup of coffee in one hand and a jelly donut in the other. We are at the Petro Truck Stop in Spokane WA. It’s 18 degrees outside and there’s snow on the ground, but it’s warm and cozy in the truck. We’re getting ready to start our mail run back to Los Angeles. Here is our route:
Hey, wait a minute. This could be a nice little business: “Ride Along in a Big Rig. 4-Day Adventures Leaving Weekly from Los Angeles.” What should I charge? Maybe $49 per day (it’s like a Motel 6 on wheels). Price includes light conversation. I’ll need to check with my truck owner. I think he would go along with it. He’ll add you to the insurance. I’ll give him half the proceeds – after all, none of this would be possible without him and his wonderful trucks. Should I allow women? Why not. I’ll need to check with Raili. She’ll probably say ‘No!’ Wait, she doesn’t have to know (she doesn’t follow Facebook). I wonder what David would think . I’ll bet he would say ‘Go for it!’
47. Monument Valley
I drove through Monument Valley in southern Arizona two days ago. It was late afternoon and the sun made the rock formations look really pretty. This is Navajo country. There are hundreds of small trailers and adobe huts scattered across the desert landscape. Many of the houses and huts have no electrical lines running to them, and I suppose they have no plumbing. It’s an austere life. Tribal casinos are prevalent throughout the southwestern states. I hope the profits from the tribal casinos are helping to improve the lives of the native Americans.
48. Hay Fields – in Arizona?
I picked up a load of hay bales at a huge corporate dairy farm near Gila Bend, Arizona, in the Mojave Desert. They loaded six 1000-pound hay bales into my trailer with an offroad forklift right out there in the field. I delivered this load to a warehouse at the Port of Los Angeles. They said it will be going to China.
Many of the large cattle ranches in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Texas and other states also have large hay fields as part of their cattle operation. They sell the surplus hay to China and other customers. We are given an address to pick up a load of hay bales in a remote section of Utah, for example. Once we get to the general location we usually have to drive on dirt roads to the place where the farmer will load the hay bales into our trailer. In snow or rainy conditions it can be a real challenge just to get to the location. I once had to back up half a mile on a narrow muddy dirt road to get to the loading location. When you get there, the farmer jabs each of the 1000-pound hay bales with the fork attachment on his tractor and then places the bale at the end of the trailer, and then pushes the preceding bales all the way to the front of the trailer with each new bale as the loading proceeds.
Loading hay bales in Arizona
49. East of El Paso
A half hour ago I saw a huge white thundercloud on the horizon in front of me as I crossed the west Texas desert heading to San Antonio. For a while before the sun went down behind me the cloud glowed red and yellow. Now it’s purple and gray and flashes of lightning are lighting up the inside of the cloud. The rest of the sky is clear and dark blue. The desert scrub that fills this area like an ocean is dark green in the twilight. There’s a silvery white full moon. The Man in the Moon seems to be watching the lightning show with an open mouth saying “Ohhh!!”
South central Texas is called “brush country”. There are cattle ranches with dense brush as far as you can see in every direction. I asked a local resident how they keep track of the cattle. He said they use helicopters, pickup trucks and cowboys on horseback. I was puzzled about the helicopters because I had been driving through this area for most of the day and didn’t see any. Then a dusty well-used pickup truck passed me, pulling a trailer with a small white Robinson R22 two-person helicopter on it. I know the model because I was interested in them years ago when I was active in private flying. The R22 is very nimble and economical to operate – perfect for chasing down wayward cattle.
Laredo, Texas, is a rough town. It’s a major shipping hub for trucks and trains. From the freeway it looks like it’s all warehouses and strip malls and truck stops. You have to get closer to see the diamonds in the rough.
Legend has it that a lot of trucks get stolen in Laredo. The driver gets tossed out and then the truck and trailer, with high-value and easy to sell loads like tires (no serial numbers), or electronics, or cigarettes, or liquor or high-priced agricultural chemicals are driven across the border and are never seen again. Nowadays that’s mostly legend. Modern trucks have excellent anti-theft devices like satellite GPS tracking with remote engine shutdown. Trailers aren’t as well-protected, though. A trailer with no tractor attached and no kingpin lock is easy pickings. They tell us to park in well-lighted security-patrolled parking places and always stay attached.
The flat terrain that surrounds Laredo is covered by dense scrub brush for thousands of square miles, from the hill country of San Antonio and Austin to the sprawling suburbs of Houston to the placid waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
From an occasional rise on the freeway you can see past the arched gateways, some of them simple and some of them preposterously fancy, into the widely spaced ranches on either side. You catch a glimpse of another way of life: cattle pens and ranch houses and broken-down jalopies by the shed that were once objects of great affection or great utility and horse trailers and pickup trucks carrying hay bales and kids on backyard swing sets.
The scrub brush is high enough to hide thousands of cattle, and to hide thousands of whitetail deer which attracts thousands of hunters. They hunker down in little hunting shacks that stick up above the scrub brush. They get around in knobby-tired off-road buggies that bounce easily through the mud puddles and sandy spots.
Today I’m parked at a Walmart Supercenter waiting for my load back to LA. Walmart is trucker friendly – they won’t knock on your door in the middle of the night and ask you to leave. Many of them are open 24 hours and have a McDonalds inside and they all have clean bathrooms. They’re a lot nicer place to hang out than most truck stops with their constant truck noise and diesel fumes.
On either side of me are a few other trucks and some campers and a couple of cars with people sleeping inside. Occasionally you see a guy or a gal brush back their hair and throw on a jacket and climb down from their rig and make their way inside. We’re “the Walmart people.”
Through the windshield I see a mom and her young adult son waiting at a bus stop. The son notices a Walmart shopping cart with a child’s seat attached to it. He climbs awkwardly into the child’s seat and grins at his mom, maybe re-creating a fond childhood memory. She rolls her eyes and moves next to him affectionately. They stand and sit silently together, shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the bus.
51. A Kicked Dog
New drivers and even some experienced drivers have to endure the demoralizing experience from time to time of being asked to leave a No Truck Parking location, such as a shopping mall parking lot or a freeway off ramp, where they have been forced to park for their mandatory rest break, usually because they have run out of driving hours. No matter how polite or sympathetic the security officer may be, when you’re asked to leave like that you feel like “a kicked dog”.
When I met Lewis he was sitting by himself at one of the tables in the driver’s lounge of the Swift terminal in El Paso typing on his laptop. There were no other tables open so I asked if I could join him. Lewis shrugged without looking up. I took it as an indifferent “OK” and sat down.
We both worked silently on our laptops for a long time, absorbed in our private digital worlds while other men and women played with their phones and watched the big screen TV and read magazines and engaged in conversations at the other tables. Everyone was passing time while waiting for a load assignment or a truck repair or some other reason to be stuck here at the El Paso terminal.
Lewis heaved a heavy sigh and closed the cover of his laptop. He looked at me for the first time and I saw an opportunity for some light conversation.
“My name’s Doug,” I said, extending my hand. Lewis shook my hand with a firm grip. He looked at me directly without a smile and said “Lewis” and continued to stare at me without smiling. I could see that he preferred to dispense with small talk, which was OK with me.
Lewis was wearing the long-haul truck driver uniform – loose fitting sweat pants, ketchup-stained tee shirt, and slip-on sneakers. Sometimes a driver will swagger in to the truck stop wearing tight-fitting jeans and cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. He probably thinks he’s John Wayne. The rest of us are thinking, as they say in Texas, “he’s all hat and no cows”. When he gets back to his truck he’ll change into his sweats and kick off those uncomfortable boots and the hat will go on the shelf.
I said, ”I couldn’t help noticing – it looks like you have a blog.”
“Uh huh,” replied Lewis.
“I would enjoy reading it, I mean, if it’s OK.”
Lewis looked down at his laptop and then up at me. He opened the laptop cover and brought up the first page of his blog and slid the laptop over to me.
Lewis is a large man. As he would say, “I’m a little over weight”. I suppose his overweight condition is because of a sedentary lifestyle and a steady diet of fast food. I know that sounds presumptuous – there can be other factors, of course – but it’s a common pattern for many truck drivers.
Lewis told me about an experience he had a few nights ago. He accidentally ran out of driving hours and there were no truck stops nearby, so he took a chance and parked at the far edge of a Sears parking lot in Los Angeles. A couple of hours after he fell asleep he was awakened by an insistent banging on his door. He put on his sweats and slid sleepily into the driver’s seat. He lowered his window and looked down at an agitated middle-aged man in a blue uniform in a white Ford Ranger mini-pickup truck with a rotating yellow beacon. He knew the routine. Before the mall cop had a chance to speak, Lewis said, “Sorry, officer, I’ll move.”
I recognized what Lewis was describing and said, “Oh, yeah. That’s the pits.”
I’m sure the officer was relieved with the compliant response – sometimes these confrontations get nasty. But not with Lewis. He had been kicked so many times by the hardships of a life on the road that his apologetic retreat had become a reflex:
Like “Sorry, officer, I’ll move.”
And “Sorry, dear, I’ll fix it when I get home.” (That was when the downstairs toilet stopped working. Now they would have to use the upstairs toilet. They sure weren’t going to call an expensive plumber. “You should be here!” she told him in frustration.)
And “Sorry, buddy, I’ll make the next one. I promise.” (That was when he had to miss his son’s baseball game, again, because his truck broke down in Dallas.)
I looked at Lewis’ first blog post. It was a picture of snow-covered mountains behind the Home Depot in Ogden Utah.
I looked at his second post. It was a picture of a lively mountain stream running alongside a rest area in Colorado.
His third post was an empty Arizona highway that stretched to a vanishing point on the far horizon.
There were no pictures of the hustle and bustle of big cities, no passing snapshots of roadside attractions, and, most noticeably, no people. All of his posts were serene scenes of nature.
It occurred to me that Lewis’ blog is his place of refuge. It’s a good place to have when you spend a lot of time in the dog house.
52. Driving the Queen Mary
I have only had to haul heavy loads a few times but each time it was a memorable experience. A heavy load is one that’s more than about 40,000 pounds, up to the limit of 45,000. The truck feels much different. You have to start out in a lower gear. It accelerates slowly, taking its time while the cars line up impatiently behind you. You have to slow down more for the curves and you start braking earlier when coming to a stop. There’s a kind of ponderous dignified stateliness about it. When I’m driving slowly through a small town with a heavy load I have an urge to wave to people on the street, who often stop and watch me go by. Some times I even give them a toot on the air horn, especially the kids. A heavy load feels like you’re driving the Queen Mary.
53. Highways and Byways
One of the things that I like about long haul trucking is the opportunity it provides for reflection. You have a lot of time to think about things without any distractions. As the German poet Johann Goethe observed, “We can be instructed within society but inspiration requires solitude.” I don’t know how inspired my musings are but they do flow more freely when I’m alone on the open road. My eyes are on the road but my thoughts are usually somewhere else.
Like most truck drivers I usually take the freeways between my long haul pickups and deliveries. When the schedule allows, I sometimes take the highways and byways. It works best in the Western Eleven and not as well in the Midwest and East, where there are too many small towns and slow roads. On the highways and byways the appealing things in the passing landscape feel closer and more accessible, like the small church that I passed on a Sunday morning on Hwy 180 in west Texas. There were two big rigs among the freshly washed cars and pickup trucks in the gravel parking lot. As I rolled slowly by I heard the delightful sound of a favorite hymn through the open church doors: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…”
(Telling stories to the American Truckers Convention during a rest break via Skype. )
54. Road Warrior
You might wonder if I get drowsy or bored on long stretches. Usually I don’t. The 12-foot high cab and the huge windshield give you a commanding view. There is a scene in one of the Batman movies where the dark knight perches on top of the highest building in Gotham and looks out over the city, as if he owns it. That’s me. (If I let some air out of my seat and drop down about six inches it completely dispels the illusion.)
55. Truck Driving Instructor
After I quit the Over the Road business I got a job as an instructor in a new truck driving program at a local vocational college. I was hired to put together and teach the classroom material to help the students pass the DMV written tests, and conduct behind-the-wheel training in the yard and on the road. Another man was hired as general manager, and a third man was hired to focus on recruiting students.
They purchased two used Freightliner trucks with sleeper berths and two 53-foot box trailers. The new general manager persuaded them to spend $35,000 to wrap the trailers in a beautiful paint scheme. Our name and phone number and web address were superimposed on a huge photo of a smiling truck driver waving at you from the cab. It looked really sharp.
Our first class had a grand total of three students, which was far less than their projections, but we pressed on, confident that the advertising and recruiting efforts would generate a lot more students.
One thing that surprised me as I sat at my desk preparing the lessons was how often I heard the recruiter say to a prospective student, “I see you have a felony. I’m sorry but we can’t admit you.” Usually it was a drug-related offense that caused them to fall victim to California’s Three Strikes law. Our recruiter would explain to the applicant, who must have felt extremely dejected, that it wasn’t the school’s preference – we would be glad to have him as a student. It was because the college had to show a good record of placing its graduates, and virtually no trucking company will hire someone who has a felony.
I enjoyed being an instructor, both in the classroom and on the road. I mapped out a driving route that included city driving and highway driving. I carefully avoided streets with difficult turns that could get my novice students into serious trouble, like tight right turns where you have to swing into the adjacent lane to get turning clearance for the end of your trailer.
Many of my students had a lot of trouble at first with shifting. One poor fellow in particular was slower than the others. His efforts usually produced terrible grinding noises as he struggled to get through the gears. One day after we pulled out of the yard he managed to get it from second to third and, with more struggling, from third to fourth, but then he just left it there. He stared straight ahead over the steering wheel like everything was fine instead of going the rest of the way to ninth gear. We crawled down the boulevard at 20 MPH as traffic backed up behind us. I asked him, “Why aren’t you shifting?” With a sigh of exasperation he replied, “I figured I’d quit while I was ahead.”
We got along well in the office, but we discovered that the general manager had a volatile temper. We had to be careful not to set him off.
One day one of the students was driving too fast in the gravel yard, kicking up clouds of dust. The general manager stormed out of his office and practically ran up to the truck as the student brought it to a stop. The general manager swung open the student’s door and screamed, “What the !&@$! do you think you’re doing!! Slow it down or I’ll kick your !&@$! out of here!!”
The mortified student didn’t say anything, but I could see that he was extremely shocked and embarrassed. The general manager went back to his office. We changed drivers and continued the lesson. Later I was relieved to see that the student didn’t quit the program – we needed him.
On another occasion we had just returned from some road work when the general manager came out to the yard with that furious look on his face. He had noticed a small swath of green on the top left corner of the trailer. One of the students had brushed against some overhanging tree branches during the roadwork.
As I started to enter the office he pointed at the swath of green and said, “Don’t let that happen again, or it’ll be your job.”
Something deep inside me snapped. I spun around on the high doorstep and looked down at him and shouted, “Don’t you threaten me about my job !&@$! I don’t want to hear that !&@$! anymore!!”
He rocked back on his heels, with his head and shoulders thrown back and his hands dangling at his sides. In a single moment his demeanor went from angry and threatening to stunned silence. After he recovered his balance he said, weakly, “Well, just be careful” and went back to his office. One of my students happened to come around the corner as this was happening and saw the whole thing. As he passed by he grinned and gave me a discrete thumbs up.
As the months went on, most of the students passed the DMV tests and got their licenses. But we couldn’t get enough students to make it profitable. Finally, after nine months, they informed us that they were closing the school.
There was a silver lining: one of my students discovered that his neighbor was starting a trucking business. It led to the best truck driving job I’ve ever had, including, most important of all, plenty of home time.
56. The Misadventures of Nelson Newbie
Here are some stories which I used in my classroom when I was a truck driving instructor. You might wanna grab a cup of coffee (or a No Doz!) – a lotta years generates a lotta stories. It’s called “The Misadventures of Nelson Newbie.”
This is Nelson Newbie. He’s 58 years old, recently retired, and a loving husband and father, and he’s beginning a new second career as a long haul truck driver. As with any new career there is a lot to learn and sometimes the only way to learn is to make mistakes.
“How Come I’m Not Moving?”
Rookie driver Nelson Newbie pulled out of his parking space at the Pilot Truck Stop and turned to the right toward the freeway on ramp. After his rest break he was in a hurry to get back on the freeway and make some progress toward his destination. It was going to be another great day on his run from Los Angeles to Denver…or so he thought. All of a sudden Nelson heard the sound of steel scraping on concrete, and he felt an unusual resistance to his forward movement. He looked in his right-side mirror (for the first time this morning) and saw the end of his trailer suspended in the air on a 2-foot high K-rail that marked the beginning of a construction zone. As the dust settled, several drivers walked over from the truck stop with their iPhones in hand. Nelson sank down in his seat as he realized he had just become today’s featured attraction on Twisted Truckers, the Facebook page that features embarrassing mistakes made by truck drivers. Nelson called Ernie, his dispatcher, and confessed his predicament. Ernie was an exceptionally helpful and sympathetic dispatcher. He gave Nelson the following advice:
“Don’t feel too bad, Nelson. It’s a common mistake of new drivers – dragging their trailer wheels across the corner as they make a right turn. It happens a lot, even though all approved truck routes are designed to accommodate long trailers.”
Ernie talked Nelson through a backing maneuver that extricated Nelson from the K rail. There was some minor damage to the aerodynamic skirt, otherwise Nelson got away lucky on this one. Ernie explained about right turns:
“The secret for safe right turns (there’s no magic here) is to pull well forward before you start the turn and check your right-side mirror as you approach the corner. To get more clearance from the right-side curb you may have to move part way into the left lane as you approach the corner, or you can move a little further into the cross traffic lanes as you enter the cross traffic lanes.”
“There are times when it’s not safe or even possible to make a right turn with a long trailer. You may need to go past the intersection and then go around the block to the left, to avoid having to make a dangerous right turn.”
“Holy S__T! I Can’t Get Into Gear!”
As Nelson crested the hill he saw the signs that warned “Descend In Low Gear”, but he figured that with his light load he didn’t need to downshift. His speed increased rapidly as he descended the steep grade. He tried to downshift but he got flustered and couldn’t get it into gear. Within a few moments he was going really fast and he was applying the brakes heavily. Smoke started coming from his trailer brakes. Now he was almost frantic. He spotted the Runaway Truck Ramp up ahead and thought to himself, “I can’t believe this is happening to me!” He braced himself tor the impact with the gravel pit. He had the strange thought, for such a desperate moment, “I won’t be making my delivery on time.”
When his front tires hit the deep gravel he was thrown forward against his seat belt. He had to grip the steering wheel firmly to keep the wheels straight. The truck came to a stop quickly in a cloud of dust. He turned off the engine and looked around him, somewhat in shock at what had just happened. As the dust settled he felt relieved and thankful that the frightening ordeal was over. He called Ernie and Ernie said he would call a tow service to pull him out of the gravel pit. Eventually he stopped shaking as he sat in his truck for the long wait for the tow truck. Ernie called Nelson back after he scheduled the tow truck and then he explained to Nelson about descending a steep grade:
“When descending a steep grade it’s important to get into a lower gear at the top of the grade, before you start the descent. Otherwise you might not be able to get into a lower gear. When that happens your speed increases rapidly, which requires you to brake heavily to slow down. You could then overheat your brakes, which can make them much less effective or even useless.”
“The best way to avoid overheating your brakes on a downgrade, in addition to being in a lower gear, is to use the Jake Brake. This is a clever invention that uses engine compression to slow the truck. It has been around for many years. There is usually an on/off switch and a compression strength switch (high, medium, or low). On your truck it’s on automatically in low compression mode which you would use for a light load, and you can push a toggle switch on the dash to put it in high compression mode when you have a heavy load.”
Our recommended Jake Brake technique for descending a steep grade is to shift to 9th gear at the top of the grade and set your cruise control to 45 mph. When the speed gets to about 50 mph the Jake Brake turns on and keeps you below 50 mph without having to use the brakes. If you need to apply the brakes to bring your speed down, apply them heavily and get the speed about 10 mph below your target speed, then let the Jake Brake take over.
“My Drive Wheels Are Spinning”
Nelson followed the sharp spiral curve of the freeway on ramp. He didn’t notice that his right side trailer wheels were going further and further onto the soft shoulder on the inside of the curve. At the end of the curve he came to a stop to wait for traffic. When he tried to start out again, the truck wouldn’t move – his left side drive wheels were spinning! He got out of the truck and discovered to his dismay that the twist in his trailer, because of the down-sloping curve, had lifted his left side drive wheels slightly off the ground – enough to cause them to lose all their traction.
If your drive wheels are spinning because of ice, snow, or mud, or due to an uneven road surface, you may be able to regain traction by engaging the Differential Lock Switch. This locks the differential so that both sets of drive wheels are locked together.
If the Differential Lock Switch doesn’t fix the problem you may have to find some material such as wooden boards or a long flat rock to wedge under the spinning drive wheels to try and regain traction.
“There’s No Way I Can Fit…”
Badly designed customer yards are common in downtown locations where every square foot is claimed and contested. Carelessly parked vehicles, thoughtlessly placed fire hydrants, and towering stacks of pallets limit the maneuvering area to the bare minimum. Making deliveries in these locations is a challenge for any driver, let alone a newbie like Nelson.
Nelson’s co-driver was in the passenger seat. With the weary patience of age, the old gearjammer silently endured Nelson’s exasperated cussing and ranting as he bounced from one landscaping boulder to the next, leaving paint on the rocks and dents in the bumper. He finally got the distant end of the trailer up to the dock. The building shook and the truck shuddered as he banged the dock so hard that workers stopped their movements and stared with indignation. Nelson set the brakes and slumped in his seat. He wiped the sweat from his brow and turned off the engine, too exhausted and too embarrassed to look at his companion.
The best advice for situations like this is “take it slow”. Sometimes you have to park outside the location and walk the yard to figure out how you’re going to get around the obstacles. On one of my deliveries I had to move a whole stack of wooden pallets out of the way, one by one, to make room to maneuver. Walking the yard also allows you to check in without blocking other traffic, locate your assigned dock, and determine how you will exit the location when you’re done so that you don’t get caught in a dead end.
“Oh No…I’m Over Weight”
Nelson pulled out of the Kroger loading dock in Phoenix with a full load of Gatorade. He knew that a heavy load, like this one, required checking his axle weights at the CAT scale before he left for Los Angeles. He pulled onto the CAT Scale at the Pilot Truck Stop, and sure enough, his scale receipt said he was 500 pounds over the weight limits on his trailer axles. “Now what,” he thought. His so-called “driver trainer” had never showed him how to slide the tandems to redistribute the weight over his axles. With a heavy sigh he called his dispatcher and confessed his predicament.
If your scale receipt says you weigh more than 12,300 pounds on the steer axle or more than 34,300 pounds on the drive or trailer axles you will have to “slide the tandems” (which means move the trailer box forward or backward).
His dispatcher told him, “When you’re over weight on the trailer axles you have to lock the trailer brakes, release the tandem locking lever, and then drive forward to pull the trailer box forward. This will move weight off the trailer axles.”
Nelson said, “OK, I get it. What if you’re over weight on the drive axles?” His dispatcher said, “If you’re over weight on the drive axles you have to lock the trailer brakes, release the tandem locking lever, and then back up, to push the trailer box back. This will move weight off of the drive axles.”
The dispatcher explained, “Each hole on the slide rail counts for about 250 pounds on trailers with 4” spacing between the holes – that’s what we have on our trailers. There are some trailers with 6” spacing between the holes. Those are about 400 pounds per hole.” If you weigh more than 12,300 on the steer axle, and you can’t get it legal by moving the trailer box back, then you will have to slide the fifth wheel.
To slide the fifth wheel you will lock the trailer brakes, lower the landing gear to take the weight off the fifth wheel, and then hold down the Fifth Wheel Slide switch on the dashboard while you gently move forward or backward. Then re-weigh to make sure you are now legal.
If you ever pick up a load and the CAT scale says you’re over the 80,000 pound gross weight limit, go back to the shipper and show them your scale receipt. They’re gonna have to offload some pallets.”
Nelson thanked him again. The dispatcher said, “This is a tricky calculation even for veterans sometimes. Always re-weigh after sliding to make sure that you’re legal.”
To slide the fifth wheel:
– set the trailer brakes
– lower the landing gear to take the weight off the fifth wheel
– hold down the Fifth Wheel Slide switch on the dashboard while you gently move forward or backward
Then re-weigh to make sure you are now legal. If you are still over weight, call your dispatcher and explain that you are not able to get all the axles legal. They may ask you to return to the shipper to have it re-loaded.
If the scale receipt says you are over the maximum gross weight of 80,000 pounds, you would have to go back to the shipper with your scale receipt in hand and ask them to offload some cargo.
“My #@!#% Trailer Box Won’t Slide”
The dock supervisor at the Walmart Distribution Center in Buckeye, Arizona, was getting impatient. He had already assigned Nelson to a door and instructed Nelson to slide his trailer wheels to the rear of the trailer (which makes it safer for loading and unloading with a forklift). But now it was 15 minutes later and Nelson was still fooling around with his trailer, and he wasn’t up to the dock yet. The dock supervisor yelled, “Let’s go! I’ve got trucks waiting!” Once again Nelson had to swallow his pride and call his dispatcher for advice. He told him he couldn’t get the tandem slider locking pins to retract.
His dispatcher told him to set the trailer brakes and then back up firmly against the kingpin. He said, “Then set the parking brake and go back and try to pull the release arm again.”
Nelson performed the maneuver as he was told, and then he was able to pull out the tandem release arm and slide the trailer box all the way forward. He backed up to the dock and they proceeded with the loading.
He called his dispatcher back and thanked him for his help. The dispatcher said, “Here’s another little tip I learned when I was a newbie: There’s supposed to be a catch on the tandem release arm for locking it in the “out” position, but sometimes the catch doesn’t hold. You have to give it a little help. A pair of vise grips does the job nicely. That’s one of the essential items for your toolbox.”
Nelson said, “Thanks, again, I really appreciate it.” He realized he was lucky to have such a helpful and knowledgeable dispatcher.
“Hey, Pal, Do You Have A Pair of Vise Grips?”
There is a latch for the “out” position on the tandem slider release arm but it often doesn’t work without a little help. A pair of vise grips does the job, as shown in the photo. After you lock the release arm in the “out” position with the vise grips, you can get back in the cab and slide the tandems to the position you want.
“No Fridge? Get Some Non-Refrigerated Milk Substitutes”
I like to have cereal with bananas for breakfast but I don’t want to buy a truck refrigerator to keep the milk cold. I found that non-refrigerated milk substitutes such as Soy Milk, Rice Milk, and Almond Milk are delicious with my cereal. Walmart carries all three of these, including individual serving sizes. Here is what the Walmart web site says about the non-refrigerated aspect: “Shelf-stable containers are sterile and hermetically sealed, much like canned foods. This allows them to be kept in storage without refrigeration. Once opened, shelf-stable products should be kept refrigerated.”
“I Can’t Get Under the Trailer”
Sometimes a careless driver will drop a trailer in a bad location (such as a dirt yard with an uneven surface) and the landing gear feet drop down into a low spot when he pulls out from under the trailer. When this happens, the front of the trailer makes a loud bang when it slides off the fifth wheel and crashes down onto the rear end of the tractor frame, but the driver ignores it and goes on his way, leaving the next driver with a difficult situation.
If you are able to get the rear end of your tractor frame under the front of the trailer, you may be able to support the front end of the trailer in this manner and then crank up the landing gear a few inches so that you can put some boards or large flat rocks under the landing gear feet, and then crank down the landing gear all the way to raise up the front end of the trailer. This may raise the front end of the trailer enough so that you back the rest of the way under the trailer.
“I Just Lost My Trailer!”
Nelson was the center of attention, and not in a good way. He had just picked up a loaded trailer at the Lowes store in Tucson, Arizona. Now he was stopped in the middle of the street, and traffic was backing up quickly. His tractor was separated from his trailer, and his trailer was sitting nose-down on its retracted landing gear legs. He heard a police siren in the distance and it was getting louder.
Nelson had forgotten to do a tug test to make sure the trailer kingpin was locked after picking up a new trailer. You set the trailer brakes and then carefully give it a little gas to try and pull forward – if the kingpin is locked, the trailer won’t move.
As he pulled into the street everything seemed fine and then Bang! – the trailer slid off the fifth wheel and crashed down onto the street on the retracted landing gear legs. Nelson was lucky in this case – he managed to stop the truck before the air and electrical lines broke away from the trailer. Nelson cranked the landing gear down to raise the front end of the trailer and then he backed under the trailer, just as the police officer arrived. Nelson explained what happened. The officer said, “Well, OK, just get moving.” Nelson climbed into his truck and went on his way.
“My Landing Gear Won’t Go Up or Down”
Nelson arrived at his pickup location and backed under the tired-looking old trailer. Now all he had to do was crank up the landing gear. But no matter how hard he pushed or pulled on the landing gear handle it wouldn’t move. He was out of patience, out of strength, and out of time. Fortunately another driver saw what was happening and came over to help.
Some trucking companies are notorious for operating old worn out trailers – the landing gear won’t go up or down, doors won’t latch properly, and tandems won’t slide. The helpful driver watched Nelson try to turn the landing gear handle and saw that Nelson wasn’t using it properly. He showed Nelson how to make sure he was starting out with the lowest gear – pull the handle all the way out (or in some cases push the handle all the way in). Nelson managed to get the handle into the low gear position, and then he was able to crank up the landing gear.
The other driver also gave Nelson a tip that could help in the future. He said, ‘You can slide the tandems all the way to the front (in other words, push the trailer box all the way back). It will take some weight off the landing gear.” Nelson thanked the helpful driver and went on his way.
“I’m Stranded in No Name, Arizona, and I’m Out of Hours”
Nelson pushed hard all day and managed to make his delivery on time at the Walmart Distribution Center in Buckeye, Arizona. But now he was out of driving hours, and he was 10 miles from the closest truck stop.
Nelson didn’t want to drive beyond the 11-hour limit and have to endure an annoying and embarrassing lecture from the Safety Department. So he found a wide shoulder just outside the Walmart gate and stoically spent his mandatory 10-hour break there, by the side of the road – no food, no bathroom, and no truck stop movie theater. He was lucky that the local police or highway patrol didn’t make him move.
A few days later he confessed his trip planning mistake to another driver. The other driver exclaimed, “Don’t you know about PC?” “What’s that?” said Nelson. “Personal Conveyance – when you’re empty and you’re in a situation like that you can drive to a truck stop and log it as “Off Duty.” Nelson slapped his forehead and said, “Oh, OK, next time. Thanks, pal.”
“My Fifth Wheel Release Handle Won’t Unlatch”
If you are pulling as hard as you can on the fifth wheel release handle and it won’t budge, you should set the trailer brakes, back up gently against the kingpin, and then set the parking brake. This may relieve the tension between the kingpin and the fifth wheel locking jaws.
“There’s No Parking Spaces Left and I’m Out of Hours”
Nelson was very relieved when he pulled into the busy truck stop near St.George, Utah. He was down to his last half hour of driving time. If he went over the 11-hour limit he would probably get an annoying and embarrassing phone call from his Safety Department. But his relief turned to dismay when he discovered there were no open parking spaces – the truck stop was completely full.
Nelson thought, “Now what am I gonna do?” He wondered if he should just wait it out – a space might open up within a few hours. But you can’t go to sleep while you’re waiting for a space to open up. Reluctantly he called his dispatcher.
His dispatcher told him that there was a Home Depot nearby. They usually allow truck parking. He said that if Home Depot didn’t work out he could also do a Google search for nearby rest areas, Lowes, or Walmarts.
Nelson drove to the Home Depot. He was greatly relieved to find a good parking spot behind their building. He had a good rest break and nobody bothered him.
“My Kingpin Is Stuck in Front of My Fifth Wheel”
Nelson arrived at the Kmart Distribution Center in Fontana and dropped his empty trailer at the assigned spot, and then he backed under the loaded trailer that was waiting for him at another spot in the yard. As he was backing under the trailer, something didn’t sound right – he didn’t hear the usual heavy scraping sound as the bottom of the trailer rubbed across the top of the fifth wheel. But he shrugged it off and kept going.
Then he heard a metallic CLUNK and he knew that something was definitely wrong. He had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as he climbed down from the cab. He immediately saw to his dismay that the kingpin had gone right over the top of his fifth wheel as he backed under the trailer. Now the kingpin was stuck in front of the fifth wheel. Nelson had no idea how to handle this predicament, so once again he reluctantly called his dispatcher.
Luckily his dispatcher was a former driver and he knew what to do. He told Nelson, “You’re gonna have to wiggle your way out of it by making small turns to the left and right as you back up and pull forward. You won’t be able to move forward or back very far, so make sure you turn the wheel all the way to the left or right before you move forward or back.”
Nelson did as he was told. With great relief he finally managed to wiggle free. He called his dispatcher and thanked him for his help. His dispatcher said, “No problem, but you’re not done yet. Now use the landing gear handle and lower the trailer a little so it’s the right height for the fifth wheel.”
Nelson lowered the trailer about two inches and then he was able to back under it successfully. He called his dispatcher and thanked him again. His dispatcher said, “You’re welcome.” His dispatcher could hear the relief and gratitude in Nelson’s voice. He told Nelson, “Here’s a tip: Always be sure that the trailer lifts up a little when you back under it. You should see the front end of the trailer lift up as you go under it, and the landing gear feet should be a little bit off the ground.” Nelson said, “Thanks again” and went on his way.
“My Trailer Doors Won’t Latch”
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t get the trailer doors to latch. Sometimes it is due to old worn out equipment and there is not much you can do about it. But sometimes it is due to the trailer resting on an uneven surface, which prevents the doors and latches from lining up properly. Try to reposition the trailer onto a flatter
surface if possible.
“I’m Stuck on a Dead End Street”
When you accidentally find yourself on a dead end street, the first urge may be to try and do an immediate U-turn. Before doing that you need to Get Out And Look to make sure there is enough room for the turn, including any obstacles such as power lines, signs, trees, and vehicles that may be in the swing radius of the trailer.
Trailer hits tree…
If there is not enough room for a U-turn, you should back up to a place where you can safely do a U-turn or turn off onto a side street. If there is any traffic around and if you cannot find someone to stop traffic for you, you should call for police assistance while you are backing up.
…tree hits parked vehicle.
“My DPF Filter Is Clogged and I’m Stuck in Traffic”
You should not ignore the Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) warning light if it flashes on your dashboard – it will eventually lead to engine shutdown. As soon as the warning light appears, begin looking for a safe place to pull over and then do a Parked Regen to burn the soot out of the exhaust system. That will take about half an hour.
“I’m Trying To Get To The Dock and I Can’t See S__T”
Most customer yards and distribution centers are designed so that they do not require blind side backing. But if you do find yourself in this situation, try to get someone to spot for you and then proceed very slowly. Get Out And Look as many times as it takes to avoid hitting anything.
Some drivers have mounted a mirror on the passenger-side sun visor to give them a better view when blind side backing. You can find these on the Internet. You may be able to find a suitable mirror yourself and attach it with Velcro strips.
Anything that will help you avoid a backing accident is well worth it.
“There’s No Place to Park Except This Parallel Parking Spot”
Occasionally you will find yourself in a situation where you have to parallel park, such as alongside a building, because there is not enough room to just pull straight into the parking space. To parallel park in a space on your left, for example, position the end of your trailer at the beginning of the parking space, turn right to begin entering the space, then turn left to swing the front of your tractor and trailer into the space.
“I Got A Ticket For Headlight Out”
You should not continue to drive when you know that a headlight or taillight is out. Aside from the hazard to other drivers, it will be a point on your CSA record if you get a ticket. Always carry spare bulbs for your truck’s headlights and tail lights. They are available at most truck stops. Many truck models allow easy bulb replacement without requiring tools.
“My Trailer Tire Is Flat – Should I Keep Going?”
Tire blowouts are fairly common. They usually do not cause an emergency if you handle them correctly. To maintain control of your rig when a tire blowout occurs, especially a steer tire, you should step on the accelerator to counteract the side force that results from the blowout until you are sure you have steering control, then gradually slow down and pull to the side of the road.
A flat tire on your steer tires or drive tires should be repaired or replaced immediately by pulling to a safe spot on the shoulder or freeway off ramp and then calling a roadside repair service. Be sure and pull well off the roadway and put out your reflective triangles.
If you have a blowout on a single dualie tire on your trailer it is generally safe to proceed to the nearest truck stop.
“Essentials for Long Haul Truck Driving”
No Doz caffeine pills. For that little extra push at 4am between El Paso and Dallas. “One pill equals 1-2 cups of coffee.” Beware: you might find yourself offering to unload your truck for free with a pallet jack.
Spare glad hand seals. They seal the air connection between the two parts of the glad hand connector on the brake lines (the two parts join firmly together, like a Texas handshake). They’re called glad hands because when there’s no air leaking from the brake system you feel glad.
Baling wire. It holds the broken corner of your bumper in place when some idiot drags the end of his trailer across your front corner when pulling out of his parking spot.
Wet wipes. Real handy when there’s no running water around, like taking a “trucker shower” to refresh yourself for the next 11-hour driving shift.
57. Coast to Coast in a Semi Truck
When I arrived at my pickup location in Los Angeles the local dispatcher said that I had a choice of taking a double trailer load from LA to San Antonio or a single trailer load from LA to Atlanta. Before I checked with my truck owner I would have to think about this. Eight years ago I had studied the manual and passed the DMV written test for the doubles endorsement but I have never actually hauled a double trailer.
I would have more load options if I added doubles to my skill set. I figured I could do some practicing in the yard with another doubles driver and then take it nice and easy on the road. But the situation changed and I was asked to take the single trailer load to Atlanta. I hooked up to my assigned trailer and hit the road. But I resolved to take a double the next time it’s offered.
As I approached El Paso the afternoon sun was pouring in through the side window and it was just burning me up, so I pushed the side curtain forward a little. I was careful not to move the curtain too far forward – I knew what could happen if you obstruct your side or rear view in a commercial truck:
“Sorry, officer, the sun was so hot.”
“License and registration.”
“And ya know, officer, my mama’s not well…and my dawg, well, he died!…and this old truck, it’s one repair bill after another and…”
“You say your mama’s not well?”
“That’s right, officer.”
Now I had to think fast (which I’m not accustomed to). I blurted out the first thing that came to mind, and immediately I regretted it. I said, “it’s malaria.”
The officer looked away (I think it was to hide a grin). Then he looked up at me and said, “Just keep that curtain pulled back.” He returned to his patrol car and drove away.
When driving on I-20 from Texas to Florida the scenery is pretty much the same for hundreds of miles: dense trees on both sides and the rear end of the cars and trucks in front of you.
If I had to live in this region of the country I’d get a small fishing boat or pontoon boat (there’s lots of nice rivers and lakes). And I’d have to renew my pilot license or take up sky diving or hot air ballooning to get above the claustrophobia-inducing trees once in a while. I suspect there may be a few open spaces between Dallas and Atlanta but I didn’t see any.
Georgia is more scenic than the others, because it’s at the tail end of the Great Smoky Mountains (out west we call them The Great Smoky Hills).
Florida is also interesting because of the alligators and the beaches. You have to be careful whenever you walk around outside of the truck, especially near a swamp. The vegetation changes from endless forests of ordinary deciduous trees to lots of exotic Spanish Moss-covered trees and of course the ubiquitous palm trees.
￼I backed up to the dock at my delivery location in Atlanta and watched them unload for awhile. I realized that my trailer load was actually made up of a lot of separate smaller loads. The Bill of Lading said they would be going to a dozen different locations on the east coast. It was a glimpse into the complex world of the shipping business.
My dispatcher asked me if I would like to make a short run to Orlando, about six hours southeast of Atlanta, before returning to LA. I said, “Yes!” It would put another $400 in my pocket and I was excited about seeing the white sandy beaches again. But I arrived in the middle of the night, so I got to see the beaches only in my imagination. Maybe next trip.
58. Long Live the Working Man
(I wouldn’t want this story to upset anyone who is retired and no longer working, as if they hadn’t earned their season of rest and recreation. Benjamin Franklin once said, “It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man.” Emphasis on the word “idle” – you just need to keep your mind and body engaged. If you can also collect a paycheck, that’s even better.)
Henry’s weary gaze settled on the distant horizon as his double rig rumbled along the interstate, crossing the desert between Blythe and Palm Springs. It was the last leg of his four-day Texas run. The last leg is the best part of a trip, the satisfaction of another good run and the anticipation of a well-earned paycheck and the comforts of home. Outside the air conditioned cab it was 115° in the shade even in the morning, as usual in the desert in August.
Aside from the hours on the road, Henry had to build up and break down three sets of doubles on this trip, in Houston, Fort Worth and Phoenix. Each time it was in the heat of the day. Houston is so humid. It isn’t a city, it’s a sponge. Pushing a 1,000-pound dolly around is a real chore. You’re thinking there must be a better way, like a little gas-powered tug or something (that would probably get some giggles). Henry checked all his brake line connections and reached down to hook up the heavy safety chains. Wait, what?! This dolly doesn’t have any chains! #%?#%! Now Henry had to find another dolly and do it all again.
After he was hooked up Henry headed to the Loves Travel Center to fill up and shower. He dragged his sweaty greased-stained carcass through the crowds of summer tourists. Mommies scowled and pulled their babies closer as he passed by. When he left he felt almost human again. Henry’s gaze returned to the distant horizon. Heavy labor is cathartic, he mused. The sweat drains the toxins and repeated exertion replaces flab with righteous muscle. With a feeling of quiet triumph he whispered, “Long live the working man!”
When you’re on a rough road the rig some times sways back and forth as the momentum of the trailer lags and pushes. It’s a sensation that you get used to, like the noise of the guy next to you at the truck stop, who is idling with his air conditioner on to keep cool during a mid-afternoon rest break. I idle, too, when it’s very hot, but I’d rather not because the vibration tickles my nose. Haha.
Truckers are always hemmed in by regulations and rules of the road. One day if I miss an exit or if traffic is standing still maybe I’ll cut loose and take one of those illegal shortcuts that outlaws like to take across the gravel and grass to the frontage road. Or maybe not.
I’m driving east on Interstate 20 in Texas, bouncing across the Old West like a mule skinner. The lines of a favorite Bob Dylan song are running through my mind:
“I see my light come shining,
from the west down to the east.
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released.”
The words don’t have to be taken darkly. They can be a comfort to anyone who has had a rough road.
“I Shall Be Released”
When I get home I will:
1) check sprinkler heads
2) pick weeds
… the first two things on her honey do list. Some weeds are thin and wiry and their roots are deep and hard to pull out. Others are big and bushy and their roots are shallow. You can kick them loose with your boot. Their destiny is to tumble.
60. Hiawatha and Minnehaha
“I will sing about the sunshine of the prairie and the shadow of the forest, the rushing of great rivers and the thunder in the mountains, from the Land of the Ojibwa to the Land of the Dakota…” – “The Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I drove through the Navajo and Ute reservations in Utah last week. According to an article in Forbes magazine Native American reservations are among the poorest communities in the United States. Tribal casinos have helped some tribes but many reservations are located far away from population centers. A hundred and fifty years ago if they had only had our savage weapons and our savage hearts they could have defended their land and their people.
”On the shores of Gitche Gumee,
Of the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood Nokomis, the old woman,
Pointing with her finger westward,
O’er the water pointing westward,
To the purple clouds of sunset…”
61. Northern Cal Snow Flurries
Driving in light snow flurries near Mount Shasta in Northern California, heading for the Walmart Distribution Center in Hermiston, Oregon, 186 miles east of Portland on the Columbia River (where eagles perch in the tops of the trees and swoop down and grab fish out of the river). It’s 29° outside but it’s warm and cozy in the cab. The road surface is dry and the forecast looks good, thank goodness. It’s such a chore to chain up.
10pm, I’m driving through the southern Oregon forest on Highway 97. Only occasional oncoming traffic, mostly other big rigs. The reflective vest wrapped around the other driver’s passenger seat glares at me in my headlights. It says “look how clever my driver is”. It seems like every driver likes to do that. It’s annoyingly cliche.
I passed one of those self driving trucks on I-5 earlier today. I know it was self driving because the Vehicle Attendant was running behind it, frantically waving his arms. They still have some bugs.
62. To Mom
When I was growing up I had the impression that my mother would have preferred a more cosmopolitan lifestyle than what she ended up with – a series of small towns like the ones I often pass through nowadays in my travels. But she never complained.
She grew up in a rugged fishing village in Newfoundland, Canada. At the tender age of 18 she took off for New York City, all by herself, and got a job as a store clerk. I can see her celebrating that grand day, prancing down a busy sidewalk and throwing her hands in the air and jumping for joy. A little while later she met my father and they were married.
Twenty years later she took a part-time job as a Nurse Aide in a local nursing home to help pay for my college. It’s not a pleasant job. I was oblivious to the sacrifice she was making for me. She was very proud when I graduated with High Honors. When she passed on suddenly in her sleep there was no time for goodbyes. I sat in the car at the grave site, unable to walk to the grave. I was overcome with a flood of emotion. I think it could only have been my unexpressed love and gratitude leaving my heart and ascending on invisible wings into her open arms in heaven.
When I got home I looked at my wife’s lovingly maintained rose garden, and our always immaculate home, and her delightful oil and watercolor paintings that grace our walls. I told her the same thing that I used to tell my mother when I came home on school breaks: “This house is an oasis of good taste.” She smiled just like mom.
63. Expressions of Love
Maybe it’s the season. In my travels I see expressions of love all around.
In Laredo, a mom and her young adult son are waiting at a bus stop in front of the Walmart. The son notices a shopping cart with a child’s seat attached to it. He climbs awkwardly into the child’s seat and grins at his mom, maybe re-creating a fond childhood memory. She rolls her eyes and moves next to him affectionately. They stand and sit silently together, shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the bus.
In Tujunga, a young man is in a wheel chair next to a park bench at the edge of a playground where children are playing. Sitting close to him and leaning in attentively is an older man, maybe his father. The young man could be a veteran, one of the hundreds of thousands who have been physically and mentally ravaged by their military experiences, 22 of whom commit suicide every day, victims of our disastrous foreign policies.
In Atlanta, a seven-year old stands all loose-jointed with one foot on top of the other, pressed up against the display case full of Star Wars characters. He whispers the name of each character as he touches the case in a circle with his finger. He’s transported to another galaxy. “Whatcha want, baby?” asks his momma at the counter. No answer. “James!” He hurries over to her. “You want chicken nuggets?” His eyes get big and he nods his head up and down with his lips pressed together in a grin. He throws his arms around momma’s hips and presses his face sideways against her belly and shakes up and down. Momma’s irritated expression melts away instantly. She instinctively pulls him to herself and presses the side of her face against the top of his head with unbounded affection. The moment passes. She turns to the impatient young counter person and completes their order. “Momma, can I have a Star Wars?”
64. Tall Trees
She came over to me the other night while I was reading and showed me what she was holding in her hand. It was a fuzzy green pipe cleaner, squished into a little ball. She said she found it tucked into a small opening in the door frame of her bedroom closet. I looked up at her and we exchanged a tender smile. We both knew right away whose little hands had put it there, so secretly and mischievously, many years ago.
She went back to her office. When your little boy grows up it’s almost like a loss, even though you adore the kind and thoughtful young man that he has grown into. He is 18 now. We live for his affection. On one of my mail runs to Oregon not long ago, as I drove through a forest of tall trees this thought came to me: “He has grown up straight and true.” It’s immensely satisfying to a father when he has to reach up to put his arm around the shoulder of his “little boy”.
65. East Coast Run
While driving from Los Angeles to my delivery near Washington, DC, this week I thought about revisiting my first hometown, Allentown, New Jersey. It would only be two hours further north on the Garden State Parkway.
I have gone back twice since the family left Allentown 56 years ago when I was 10. Over the next ten years we moved progressively westward, first to Illinois and then to Kansas. Then it gets sketchy in my memory. I went away to college and ended up in California. I think John went to Georgia at that time? and Ellen went to Wisconsin with mom and dad?
My first sentimental journey to Allentown was after a business trip to the Sikorsky Corporation near New York City. After I finished my task I drove to Allentown in the rental car. I called my father in Wisconsin and said, “Hi, dad, guess where I am.”
The second visit was when David and I delivered our 2-person rowing boat on top of the Highlander on an epic road trip from LA to Northern New Jersey, to the home of a dentist who also had a teenage son. Like me he dreamed about rowing with his son. David and I did indeed row together, on the canal at Marina del Rey.
I took David to Cemetery Hill behind the Presbyterian Church where we went sledding and to Allentown Pond where we went ice skating. “The big kids” would make a hand-warming fire with pieces of cardboard and dead tree branches out on the ice. And I showed him the secluded little park where I had my first kiss, sitting on a park bench with Susan Szymanski.
And of course I showed David our house at 61 Waker Avenue – two stories, three bedrooms (one pink), with a small yard and a swing set – where my brother and sister and I experienced our Wonder Years.
But on this trip when the time came to take the exit on the Garden State Parkway I just waved fondly in the direction of Allentown and continued on. Home is wherever your heart is today, right now, not in a rose-colored memory.
The famous Delaware Water Gap. You’ve never heard of it? You didn’t grow up in New Jersey.
On this trip I wasn’t able to see the Washington Monument in the distance from the freeway like I did on my last trip to this area several years ago. Trucks aren’t allowed to get close to the inner part of Washington, DC, and drive past the monuments and capitol building and White House like normal tourists. But I remember those things from a grade school “field trip” (now there’s an evocative phrase).
In Maryland I noticed that a lot of trees along the freeway are afflicted with the unsightly condition called “newspaper fungus”. It happens when the wind blows, and then it rains.
It’s 7 AM in Berwick Pennsylvania, time for delivery. I parked for the night at the truck stop outside of town. It got down to 32 degrees, not bad compared to places like North Dakota and Nebraska – brrrr. Another driver and I stand shoulder to shoulder in the men’s room. The sounds coming from the stalls behind us almost take on a melody. “1812 Overture?” asks my anonymous friend. “No,” I say, “Beethoven’s Fifth”.
In the winter, drivers often keep their engines running to stay warm. They usually park side-by-side, all pointing the same direction. When they are pull-thru parking spots, like here, you’d think they would park nose to tail so they wouldn’t have to listen to the drone of their neighbor’s engine all night long. But as you can see they usually choose to park in the same direction. In the picture can you guess which one is me?
I see the same behavior in other ways, like the guys who buy old Kenworths and Peterbuilts and Freightliners (it’s always guys) and build them up with the same chrome stacks and chrome bumpers and chrome windshield visors. The sameness is mostly because those are the parts they sell at the chrome shops. I suspect there’s some herd mentality going on, too.
But if you take a look inside, that’s where the gear jammer’s personality shows through. Some are as neat and tidy and sparsely accommodated as a Marine barracks (maybe he or she is a veteran but not necessarily). Others have red velvet seats and carpets and chrome buttons and levers on the instrument panel and refrigerators and big screen TV’s – like a Las Vegas version of a Mini Winnebago.
I have thought about buying my own truck many times over the years. It’s always in the back of my mind, like a little devil on one shoulder facing off with a little angel on the other. When I’m cruising down the interstate I daydream about a nicely refurbished old Kenworth or Peterbuilt. They have a special quality, more character and charisma than the newer trucks. They’re the kind of truck that guys give affectionate names to. A gorgeous old grey Kenworth passed me the other day in Tennessee.
On the back of the cab I saw that the owner had painted a name in Gothic gold letters: “Jezebel”. She was the evil queen of Israel who led her king away from the true religion. Songwriter Wayne Shanklin penned these words in 1951 (maybe once owned an old truck):
“If ever the Devil was born
Without a pair of horns
It was you, Jezebel, it was you.
If ever an angel fell
It was you, Jezebel, it was you!”
You don’t see names like that written on new trucks like Freightliner Cascadias.
It always feels like coming home when I drive in this region of the country. I’m learning from my audiobooks and YouTubes that the mind subconsciously stores images as we go through our lives, scenes like this one that activate the serotonin (happiness) response. Years later as we come over the top of a hill or exit a sweeping curve it can recognize those images, evoking a flood of nostalgic emotion.
When I was about 10 I made road trips with my father in a truck that he called “Big Red”, delivering loads from his seed treatment business in New Jersey to farmers in Delaware and Maryland and Pennsylvania and even as far as Virginia.
Before we left the yard we usually went into his office for a few minutes. It was usually early in the morning and the office was quiet and empty. I could smell the earthy aroma of the grain and the nose-wrinkling smell of the chemicals in the seed treating plant behind the office.
We often came back from those trips with a load of watermelons or sweet corn or other produce, fresh from the farmer’s field.
We ate at truck stops and stayed in motels. On one trip dad bought me a comic book with pictures and stories about hot rods. It engaged me for hours on the drive.
On another trip he sent me out with one of his other drivers. I don’t remember my driver’s name but he had dark black hair, in the “greaser” style like Elvis. We stayed in a motel. The first thing he did when he woke up in the morning – I must have been already awake and bright-eyed, anticipating the continuation of the trip – he took a drink of water from a glass on the nightstand and then smoked a cigarette. He was kind to me and sometimes kidded with me but usually he just kept quiet and drove. I liked that, too.
I took easily to the solitude of solo long haul. As Captain Joshua Slocum said in “Sailing Alone Around the World”, on a solo voyage there are seldom any disagreements among the crew. “I found no fault with the cook, and it was the rule of the voyage that the cook found no fault with me. There was never a ship’s crew so well agreed.”
On a solo trip you have a lot of time for reflection. The German poet Johann Goethe said, “We can be instructed within society but inspiration requires solitude.” I don’t know how inspired my musings are but they do flow more freely when I’m alone on the open road. Every trip holds the promise of a new adventure, engaging with the uncertainties of Mother Nature and the ever-changing circumstances.
“I’m unsure of the future but I’m not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me. I will share their burdens, as they share mine. I will live, and love.”
⁃ Major McBride, Ad Astra
I picked up a new 53-foot Wabash dry van trailer at the Wabash factory in Lafayette, Indiana. There’s about 5,000 trailers here, waiting for delivery all over the country (OK maybe 500). It’s a huge trailer factory. My trailer has that lovely “new trailer” aroma. I think they spray it on. I’m taking it to Fontana, CA. It’s fun to haul new trailers. You can be pretty sure the doors will open and close properly, the landing gear will go up and down when you crank the handle, and the air brake lines won’t drag on the road. Those are common hazards with old trailers, which can be a source of endless entertainment.
Chicago skyline, dominated by the Sears Tower. I’m on my way back to Los Angeles from New Jersey. Last pickup is in Chicago. Now all I have to do is follow the instructions of the lady with the commanding voice for 2,004 miles and enjoy a few healthy meals and a couple of rest breaks and then I’ll be home again. 🎶 California here I come, right back where I started from.
It has been a sentimental journey. Yesterday New Jersey, where I was born and raised and now Chicago, where I went to school for a summer many years ago.
After nine days on the road you get a little ragged. I pulled in to a Supercuts on the edge of a shopping mall and got an overdue haircut. There was no one else in the store. The young lady said, “Sit wherever you want.”
I asked for my usual, a number seven clipper cut all around with scissors on top.
When she finished she said, “Do you want me to trim your ears?”
That sounded funny to me. I looked at her.
She said, “Your ear hairs. They’re a little long.”
I said, “Sure.”
She said, “Some guys are real touchy about their ear hairs and their eyebrows, so I always ask first. We have one customer who looks like Merlin the Magician.”
She said, “I learned long ago not to touch his beard or his eyebrows.”
I said, “I get it. It takes a long time to grow a long beard. He probably thinks his long eyebrows make him look old and wise.”
She laughed. She said, “Do you want the hot towel?”
I said, “Oh, yes, it’s the best part.”
I’ll start back to LA now. I just finished my lunch at a little pizza restaurant on the perimeter of a shopping mall. I came here because there’s easy truck access. They have a surprisingly diverse menu. I ordered a taco salad (low carb). I thought she would look at me funny for ordering a taco salad in a pizza restaurant. But she took it in stride, with a world weary expression, like she has seen it all and nothing surprises her any more, not even a customer who orders a taco salad in a pizza restaurant. Now I gotta go. https://youtu.be/fHRP6gadDQ4
66. An Essential Load
I’m parked in front of the Great Salt Lake Concert Pavilion (I’ll bet you thought it was a mosque or Hindu temple, didn’t you). I’m waiting for my check-in time for my load home.
I’m driving solo as usual. In compliance with the Corona recommendations I’m keeping my distance from other humans at my pickups and deliveries. All of my pickup and delivery locations have been open for business. Some of them have put up signs and barriers to enforce separation for customers and office staff.
My load will be “paper products “ from Salt Lake City to a Costco distribution center in Tracy CA. The dispatcher said it is designated as “essential load” due to the Corona situation, which means the Dept of Transportation authorizes me to go over the normal 11-hour driving limit if required so that I can drive straight through to delivery, and I can exceed the normal 46,000 pound load limit if required (my load will be 40,000).
I’ve never had these limitations lifted in nine years of driving. Maybe some of the pallets have cases of toilet paper😄.
Loads that have a high risk of hijacking, like whiskey and tires and firearms and big screen TV’s (and toilet paper) are usually done in convoys of 2 to 3 trucks. They go nonstop – no fuel or food or bathroom breaks.
In the first quarter of this year there were 144 cargo thefts reported, with an average loss of $116,000. It’s a highly organized crime, with crooked insiders in the warehouses and dispatching companies and trucking companies.
I might have to chain up again at Donner Summit near Lake Tahoe, like I did two weeks ago. I hope not. You don’t have a choice. The Highway Patrol has checkpoints, thank goodness. Inexperienced drivers do the dumbest things.
My new Hyundai trailer has seven amber lights on each side, top and bottom. When I saw trailers like that, lit up like a Christmas tree, I used to think it was excessive. And silly. But now I’ve changed my mind. It’s kind of comforting to see the trailer all lit up behind you in the dark. And it looks pretty cool, too. (Maybe you’d have to be a trucker to appreciate that, maybe not.)
Here on the peaceful shore of Great Salt Lake it’s a crisp sunny day – no wind and a little chilly. The morning sun warms the cab through my driver’s side window without having to start the engine and run the heater.
A pair of Canadian geese fly by, 20 feet above the ground, in close formation. A few minutes later, another pair flies by in the same direction.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Michener (1907-1997) movingly described these handsome birds, which mate for life, in his novel “Chesapeake”. They gather in huge flocks for their cross-continent migrations. Sitting comfortably in the driver’s seat of my truck I bring up James Michener’s historical novel on my Kindle and begin to re-read the part about the geese.
Something attracts my attention outside the cab. It’s interesting how you see things that others might miss if you just sit quietly for a while and look around.
My gaze settles on a red fire hydrant that is pouring water onto the grass and sidewalk in front of the pavilion.
A hundred feet away from the hydrant a workman, who escaped my attention until now, waves his hands at another workman on the far side of the parking lot.
Finally the workman on the far side of the parking lot looks up from his phone and stands up.
The man at the hydrant circles his hand above his head in a counterclockwise direction.
The co-worker raises his arms with a confused shrug.
The man at the hydrant raises his hand and lowers it to his knees.
Another shrug from his co-worker.
The man at the hydrant looks at the ground dejectedly and shakes his head. He walks across the parking lot to a metal box on the ground, staring at his co-worker as he passes him, and manipulates a mechanism inside the box.
The flow of water at the hydrant dribbles to a stop. The two workmen get in their white pickup truck and drive away.
Uh-oh. Ten minutes later the hydrant starts flowing again! “That don’t seem right.”
I wonder how long I’ll have to wait for the next chapter of this saga.
There’s my load message. Gotta go.
67. Rough Hands
If you need food, bathroom or basic home and health items and nothing’s open, Google “truck stop near me”. I gotta get some more wet wipes – when I wipe my hands before and after a pickup or delivery my rough and calloused truck driver hands shred the wet wipe.
68. A Fine Example
I spotted this bear track in the weeds behind a row of parked trailers at my pickup in Crockett, CA. Crockett is a wild and woolly little town on the edge of the San Francisco wilderness. That’s how I know it’s a bear. I showed it to another driver and he said, “That’s not a bear, that’s a raccoon.” I said, “Well, maybe. But I’m gonna show it to someone at home and she’s gonna believe it’s a bear.”
I have heard many stories about sons who are disheartened and disappointed with themselves because they could not live up to the high example of their father who may have excelled in sports or business or accomplished some other outstanding achievement. So after David was born I resolved that I would not create such a hazard for my son. I would aspire to a life of steadfast mediocrity. Now, in my mid-sixties, I am proud to report that my strategy has been a success – I have achieved nothing of any great importance (compared to, say, Albert Einstein) and David is a healthy, happy and confident young man.
69. Miles To Go
When I was shopping for a sports car I seriously considered a Dodge Viper. It is one of the coolest-looking cars on the planet. Then I read the driver reviews. One of them was the nail in the coffin. After describing a long list of faults like poor visibility from the driver’s seat, poor interior fit and finish, and hard to get in and out of, he concluded: “I would never be able to stand being in it for long enough to get to that winding mountain road.” For me a sports car also has to be practical and reliable. But I understand why the impractical Viper has a lot of fans in spite of its faults: if practicality ruled our choices, cowboys would ride side saddle.
My car expert son, David, steered me toward the Z06 model of the Corvette. We are both very happy with it. The Corvette has all the requirements for a comfortable ride to Walmart including creature comforts and mechanical reliability as well as outrageous horsepower and excellent road-handling for a thrilling ride on the Angeles Crest Highway, or at another very special place for car lovers…
David’s Track Day Dec 1, 2019, at Willow Springs Raceway, Rosamond, CA
It was one of the greatest thrills and proudest days of my life when I stood in the bleachers at Willow Springs Raceway and watched David come around the homestretch curve on to the straightaway in our Corvette. He had expertly prepared the car over the preceding months for his first Track Day.
I took him to the track a lot when he was little. We watched the Corvettes and Mustangs and Ferraris and Porsches sweep gracefully through the curves and accelerate down the straightaway. We would look at each other and think to ourselves, “some day…”
While I was on my Dallas run David asked me if he could borrow the Corvette for a few hours for a sunset photo shoot with one of his car enthusiast friends who is a talented photographer and shares some of his tips with David. Here is one of David’s awesome photos. The location is Mount Wilson Observatory in the mountains above Los Angeles.
“I’ve decided what I want to do when I’m finished with driving,” I said.
“What’s that,” she said, without looking up from her monitor.
“Health and Fitness Coach,” I said. Her eyebrows went up. She turned and looked at me, a little too skeptically.
“I’m in pretty good shape,” I said, “except for this stomach. I think I can get rid of it with diet and exercise.”
“Hmphh,” she said.
I said, “My coaching motto will be ‘It’s not all about you (just mostly)’.
She liked that.
“The first thing we have to do,” I said, “is go to Catalina.”
“What for?” she said.
“To find a location for my coaching videos,” I said. “It has to be on the lee side of the island (no wind). Maybe the beach at Avalon.”