Thursday, December 11, 2008
Lots of excitement this past month or so. We were out in LA during the big fires. We could see the smoke from the Yorba Linda fire for miles before we got into town, and as we got closer we could see the hellish ruddy glow from the flames reflected from the billowing clouds. We had to hurry to get our load delivered before the fire shut down the highways we needed to take. When we got to Long Beach to drop our trailer, there was ash drifting down on us. It made me think of the volcano disaster movies I've seen. We never got close enough to see the actual fires, but the smoke covered almost all of LA, and breathing was difficult. By the time we got out of town and up into the mountains on I-15 my eyes were burning and I felt like I had a hangover or a case of the flu. Mike laughed at me for tying a wet bandana over my mouth and nose. He said I looked like a bandit, but it really did help.

Over Thanksgiving, we had a load going to Long Island, NY. It had two stops on it, and we had rescued it from a solo driver who was out of hours and way out of route. We never did get the story on how he ended up so far from where he should have been, but the load was late and we didn't make our first stop in Pennsylvania on time. They had to squeeze us in, and it was the day before Thanksgiving and they all wanted to get finished and go home. Needless to say, no one was happy, and it only got worse for us. Because it took so long to get unloaded at our first stop, it became impossible to make it to our second stop. The deliveries had been scheduled rediculously close together to start with. The reciver for our second stop was closing at 1:00 in the afternoon. We had 200 miles, and the George Washington Bridge to cross before we could get to them. We called them to see if they would stay open long enough to deliver, because this was an important account we were hauling for and it needed to be delivered. (It was chicken, and it turned out it was for the Catholic Archdioses in New York.) They wouldn't stay open, but our dispatcher kept telling us we HAD to deliver it. That would mean sitting at a closed, deserted warehouse until Monday. Not fun. After several phonecalls, we were told to just take it anyway, so we started heading that way. We got to within 3 miles of the GW Bridge before our dispatcher told us to turn around and take it back to a drop yard in Pennsylvania. Whew, that was too close. The GW is like a suspended perpetual traffic jam, and New York City is no place for a big truck.

We ended up taking the load to a drop yard, and we got dispatched to Vermont to pick up a load on Friday morning. That meant we got to spend Thanksgiving day leaisurely making our way upstate through some of the prettiest mountain country on the East Cost - the Adriondaks. Unfortunately, there are very few truckstops up there, and what few there are were mostly closed, so Thanksgicing dinner ended up being turkey sandwiches, cranberry juice, and a slice of pumpkin bread from a convienience store.

We ran as usual for the next week or so, and had planned to take some time off in mid December. Then we got the offer we couldn't refuse. Non-stop, run them hard, drop them and deadhead back as-fast-as-you-can-get-there loads until Christmas. We put off our hometime, and we're running them now.

Today, for the first time since I started driving, we got called into a scale and pulled around back for a random inspection. I was driving, and I was nervous. But it all went ok. The DOT officer checked our truck and trailer, and looked at our paperwork. The only thing he found wrong was an id light on the trailer that was out, and I swear it was working when I pre-tripped this morning. And it was wroking when I got to the TA down the road, too. But we still had to take it to the shop because a mechanic had to sign off that it was fixed. It was working fine when the mechanic signed off on it. Either there was a loose connection in it, or the DOT officer was trying too hard to find something wrong.

Right now, I should be sleeping, but I can't so I thought I'd write. Mike is driving, and we are just East of Nashville, TN on I-24 driving through the first very thick snow we've run into this year. We're inching along in thick traffic, moving about 25 MPH. Its very pretty, but i hope we get out of it soon. I've already seen three cars in the ditch, and visibility is pretty bad.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
Ok, so this is turning into more of a once a month thing, but I'm trying. I like quiet stillness when I'm writing, and life on the road is anything but quiet and still.
Mike and I got home for a few days at the beginning of November. We missed out on trick-or-treating with the grandkids, but I did get to sit up with Lillian on November fourth and watch the election results come in. Lilly fell asleep before the news broke, but I'm glad I got to sit up and watch a little history in the making. I just hope Obama can live up to his promises.

We got moving again on the 6th, headed out to Denver and delivered a load, then picked up a load of bread going to Satsuma, Florida. Heading back east on I-70 we ran into a heck of a wind storm. Bread is pretty light, and we were blown around pretty bad. We eased across the Plains, having to detour off an exit and back on around a big truck that had been blown over in it's side, and a second truck that had been blown off into the median, but was still upright. Emergency services were already there, and the drivers were ok. As light as we were, we were pretty nervous about the same happening to us.

Not long after we crossed back into Kansas, we made a stop at one of our favorite truck stops. It's a favorite because it's one of the few truck stops with a Starbuck's (Venti Rasberry Mocha Latte with whipped cream - Yum!). We didn't really get to enjoy our treats, though. We took our caffinated goodies back out to the truck, and when Mike pressed down the clutch we heard an ominous *Sproing!* sound. We looked at one another and said, in unison, "That can't be good." It wasn't - it was the clutch spring. There was a repair shop at that truck stop, but this repair was beyond them, so our breakdown department asked us to nurse the truck 200 miles to Salina, KS to a Freightliner dealer to get it fixed. It is possible to shift without using the clutch, the technique is called "floating". I can float the higher gears, but I'm not so good at floating the lower ones (our truck has 10). Luckily, Mike's very good at the trick, and we were able to get to Salina - though it was a little hairy when we had to stop at intersections. Once the truck came to a stop, it had to be turned off, put in a low gear, and started while in gear... as soon as it was started it was surging forward.

We were laid over for two days waiting for the parts to come in, but there was plenty of time on the load, so we eventually made it to Satsuma, and got the load delivered on time. And the company put us up in a hotel while the truck was in the shop. If we hadn't just come back from home time, it would have been a nice break, but, since we were already well rested, we were chomping at the bit to get back on the road.

I love delivering in Florida, though. Especially in the winter time. But then, I've always had a thing for the tropics. Folks up north can keep their snow, give me a tropical breeze and a white sand beach any day. The traffic sucks though, bumper to bumper all day long on I-95 or I-4 if you get too close to Orlando or Miami.

***Editor's Note*** Oops, looks like I left this one sitting in my draft box and forgot to click "publish". Sorry, ya'll.
Monday, October 20, 2008

Wisconsin Farm

Sorry, I haven't had a chance to update lately. We've been running hard, mostly back and forth from Virginia to Texas, but we also managed to get a load out to Portland, and out through New Mexico and Arizona. It has been hard to find a few free minutes to get my thoughts together and do some writing. I did manage to pick up my camera a few times though. Enjoy...

"This Way" - An actual street name in a small town in East Texas.

Desert flowers in New Mexico.

Multinomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Mt. Shasta, Northern California.

A firefighter works to put out a roadside blaze.

Flowers beside a river in Illinois.

Our home terminal by moonlight. SRT, Texarkana, Arkansas.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
I've realized that I may use some terms and slang that my audience may not be familiar with, so I thought I'd make this week's blog into an introduction to the culture and language of trucking, and maybe give ya'll an insight into what all we have to do out here. It's not all just driving and sightseeing, not by a long shot.

Let's start with a day in the life of a trucker. Let's make this a very bad day, so I can work in some of the things that can, and have, gone wrong out here on the road.

Our guy is a solo driver, he works for Imaginary Refrigerated Trucking, Inc.

3AM, Arrive at drop yard in LA, so far so good, traffic was light, but now his eleven hours of driving is up, so he's got to get some rest time. He takes 15 minutes to unhook the loaded trailer he's dropping, then fills out his log before he hits the sack. A log, or logbook, or "swindle sheet" is a document that we are required by law to fill out and keep current.
We have to record what we are doing for every hour of the day on the grid by drawing a line to indicate whether we are 'On Duty, Not Driving', 'Driving', in the 'Sleeper Berth', or 'Off Duty'. The rules that govern this are called the Hours of Service rules, and they state that we can only work for 14 hours, then we must take a ten hour break before we can drive again. Within that 14 hours, only eleven hours can be driving, then you have to take that ten hour break before you can drive again. Then, you can't work more than 70 hours in any eight day period, once you hit the 70 hour mark you have to stop and sit until after midnight and hope you get some hours back, or you can go off duty for 34 hours and get all 70 back. Confused? You aren't the only one. Keeping that logbook legal can take a while to learn. But it's all in the interest of keeping sleepy drivers off the road.
So, our sleepy trucker gets his paperwork filled out and settles in for a 10 hour break. He shows arriving at the drop yard at 3am, then 15 minutes on duty to drop his trailer, so he's now got to go into the sleeper berth, or go off duty until 1:15 PM. (assuming he's running it legal and not keeping two sets of logs.)

1:15 PM - Our driver gets up and checks his Qualcomm. The Qualcomm (which is actually a brand name for the main company that provides them, but it has become the common name for them as well) is a keyboard with a little screen at the top that lets the driver and his dispatcher communicate. He's got a new load assignment. He has to pick up a load of produce with four picks. That means he's gonna have to go to four different warehouses to get his full load. He's gonna need a clean, working reefer trailer (a trailer with a refrigeration unit), and that means he's got to walk around the yard looking at all the trailers to find one that's empty, clean, and functional. He's also gonna need a set of load locks, cause the one's he had are bracing the load in the trailer he dropped earlier. He can't get them out because the load is sealed. (Load locks are long bars with rubber bumpers on each end that extend with a ratchet mechanism so you can stretch them tight from one wall of the trailer to the other and lock them in place to keep the load from shifting.)

The first trailer he checks has a flat tire, so he moves on the the next (if he's a responsible driver he'll make note of the trailer number and pass it along to his companies maintenance section so it can be fixed.) The next trailer stinks to high heaven when he opens the doors because the driver who dropped it had a load of meat and didn't get it washed out afterward. It even has dead rats in it, and the chute is torn. The cute is a long piece of canvas that runs along the roof of the trailer to funnel the cold air from the reefer unit at the nose to the back of the trailer. If it's torn, the cold air won't circulate properly, and the load will get too hot at the tail end of the trailer. That one's no good. The next trailer looks promising, it's clean, no flats, chute's ok, the tank is even full of fuel, so he turns on the reefer unit so it can start to pre-cool while he goes to get his tractor. He starts up the automatic pre-trip check and walks away. By the time he's got his tractor over and is ready to hook up the pre-trip is done and the unit shows four or five alarm codes, and has shut down. By now, he's cursing. Alarm codes mean there is something mechanically wrong with the unit. The only other empty on the yard has had it's fuel tank run dry, and he's been through that nightmare before. Once a reefer looses it's prime it can take hours of pumping on the little primer pump to get it started again. He goes back to the one with the flat tire, pre-trips the reefer and it comes up functional. It's the best he's gonna get. He calls breakdown (that's the department in his company responsible for keeping the equipment up and running) and, after sitting on hold for half an hour, he tells them he's gonna need a tire change. He also tells them about the problems on all the other trailers, just so some other poor driver doesn't get stuck with them.

2:30 PM - He's hooked up to the gimpy trailer and has pulled it to the repair shop ten miles down the road. (luckily, with four tires per axle, and two axles, that means he's still got three good tires on that side, and it will still roll.) He has to wait for another hour and a half for his tire to be replaced and it's getting closer and closer to his pickup time, (not to mention his 14 hour HOS clock is ticking because he had to log 15 minutes of driving time, and more on duty time while dealing with the repair shop - cause as long as he's imaginary, we may as well imagine him doing things legally.) So now it's getting close to rush hour, and he's still in LA with 140 miles to drive to get to his first pick-up. And he still needs load locks.

5:15 PM - he finally makes it out of LA traffic, which was bumper to bumper and moving at a crawl thanks to an accident on the I-5, and his dispatcher wants to know why he's running so late. He's only got 10 hours left on his 14 hour clock, and he's still got four docks to bump. He stops at a Pilot Truck Stop, pulls across the fuel island and out the other side and shuts his truck off so he can run in and buy a couple of load locks. He's out of his truck for a grand total of five minutes and the trucker behind him is already complaining about him parking on the fuel island, even as they are both standing in line to pay for their purchases.

7:45PM - he finally makes it to his first stop, only 45 minutes late. The other pickups have been rescheduled for in the morning because, even though he was late, and the shipper complained, it didn't matter anyway because they were still waiting for some of the produce, strawberries, to come in from the field. Our poor driver just can't win. They tell him which dock to back into and tell him they will wake him when they are ready to start loading him. His company policy says he's got to be on the dock to make sure the right amount of freight is loaded, and he has to pulp the produce. Pulping means he has to have a pulp thermometer and he has to measure the temperature of the produce. If it's loaded too warm then his trailer won't cool to the right temperature and it could cause the whole load to be ruined. He backs his trailer into the tight space, opens the doors, and bumps the dock. Screw logging it legal, it took him thirty minutes to get backed in to the ridiculously tight space, but he only logs it as 15 minutes. He turns off his truck and rolls down the windows (it's illegal to idle for more than five minutes in Cali, no matter how hot it gets inside the cab) and climbs into the sleeper. He only just woke up six and a half hours ago, so he's not really tired enough to sleep, even though his log will show him resting. He settles in with a movie on his laptop and a bag of beef jerky for dinner and waits for the lumpers (that's the guys who load and unload trailers) to knock on his door. He finally falls asleep sometime around 11PM.

2:30AM *Bam, Bam, Bam!* A knock on the driver side door jolts him from a sound sleep. They are ready to load him, and he has to be on the dock. He's only been in the sleeper for six hours, not enough time to re-set his 14 hour clock. If he logs this as on duty, he won't be able to drive to his next pick up, so he's gonna have to fudge his books a little. He may not like it, and it's illegal to do, but sometimes there's no getting around a little creative logging if you are gonna get the job done. He crawls out of the sleeper, pulls on his shoes, and goes inside to the dock. He watches as they load him, pulps one pallet (34°, perfect), and signs the bills. He puts his load locks in place to keep the load from shifting. All this for four pallets of strawberries. He pulls out of the dock, shuts his doors and pulls off to one side of the lot until he's legal to drive again, at 6:15 in the morning. His logbook will show that he was in the sleeper the whole time so he has the hours to drive, even though he was supposed to log the time on the dock as on duty.

6:15 AM - He's ready to throw the Screaming Meanie (a very LOUD alarm clock sold in truck stops, it's very annoying, but it does the job) through the windshield when it goes off. He's only had about four hours of sleep, and there's no coffee to be had. But he gets up, does a pre-trip inspection on his rig, and heads off to his next stop, 20 miles up the coast. This one goes much more smoothly, except that the guys on the dock barely speak any English, and he barely knows any Spanish so it's a comedy of misunderstandings as he tries to get his five pallets of grapefruit. Thank goodness the USDA inspector came in and helped to translate. He's in and out in about an hour, and off to pick number three.

8:30 AM - another ten miles, and another dock bumped. His reefer is set to 34°, but at this stop he's picking up 9 pallets of peaches, and the lady on the dock tells him he's got to set his reefer to 38°. "Don't you freeze my peaches," she keeps telling him, and she seems to be deaf as he tries to explain that if he doesn't keep it at 34° the strawberries will go bad before he can deliver them. She won't listen. He calls his dispatcher to find out how the company wants him to handle this. The dispatcher tells him to go ahead and set the reefer at 38° until after he's loaded, then set it back down to 34° once he's away from the shipper. He does as he's told, but he asks the dispatcher to send him those instruction over the qualcomm just so it's in writing and he won't get in trouble if something goes wrong. The peaches are loaded, and he's got a little time before his last appointment, so he pulls into a little Mom-N-Pop truckstop/restaurant for breakfast. He'd like to order something off the menu, but he doesn't have time, so he pays for the overpriced buffet and makes due with greasy eggs and sausage that's been under a heatlamp too long. He promises himself he'll eat something healthy for lunch.

11:00AM - Last stop. He's supposed to pick up five pallets of Bell peppers, but he's only got room on the trailer for four pallets, any more, even though they will fit, would make him overweight on the trailer because of the California bridge law (ok, a semi can't gross over 80,000lbs without special permits, but we also can't be over 12,000 lbs on our drive tires, or 34,000lbs on our drives or our trailer axles. Those weights can be adjusted by sliding the trailer axle forward or backward to balance out the load, but in Cali, and some other states, the trailer axle can't be more than 40' back from the kingpin of the trailer. That's the bridge law, and it can make getting a 53' trailer loaded legally into a headache.). He makes a mental note to choke the load planner when he gets back to his company's yard. Then he goes into the shipping office to do battle with the shipper over why their load has to be shorted. The shipper asks him to go over their scales so they can see if they can load that last pallet. Sure enough, with his axles set to California legal, his trailer axle (called his 'tandems' in trucker lingo) has 33,950lbs on them. But his gross weight is only 78,000lbs, so the shipper tries to argue that that last pallet can go on anyway, cause it won't put him over 80,000lbs. After twenty minutes of arguing the shipper, after calling the customer, says that that last pallet has to be loaded, and they can get it on there if they rearrange the trailer. They pull everything off, and re-load with the grapefruit at the nose of the trailer because it's the heaviest, then the peaches, then the strawberries, and finally the Bell Peppers, this moves most of the weight forward, and frees up just enough weight on the tandems to squeeze that last pallet on. Our poor hero has now been sitting in that dock for five hours. Now his gross weight is 79,000lbs, but his axle weights are legal, and the shipper is happy. He pulls out and heads for I-5 and his first fuel stop at the Pilot. By the time he gets to the Pilot, he's smacking himself upside the head for being stupid. He should have fueled before he got loaded, because now, if he fills up his tanks, he will be overweight. 200 gallons of diesel, at 8lbs per gallon, weighs 1,600lbs. He's got less than a quarter tank and he's already at 79,000lbs, not to mention, the reefer tank is only half full, which means he'll need another 25 gallons in it. That's gonna be 200lbs more. He's gonna be running through the desert in high summer, so he can't skimp on the reefer fuel. After some furious calculating he realizes that he can only fill his tanks halfway and still be legal. That means he'll have to stop and fuel every 500 miles, instead of the usual 1,000 miles between fillups. Maybe he'll get lucky and dispatch will let him swap this load off to some unsuspecting team.
After all the time he spent sitting at that last shipper, he's now only got two more hours that he can drive before his 14 hour clock runs out. He's starting to hate this job. He only gets paid for the miles he rolls. All the time he spent sitting in the dock waiting was unpaid time. He could stop here at the truckstop with all it's amenities, but he needs to get some miles under him so the day isn't a complete waste. He heads north on I-5, through Sacramento, then heads east on I-80. He knows it's going to take extra time to climb the hill to Donner Pass, so he wants to make up some time while he's on flat land. He fires up his CB and calls for a bear report. Bear, or Smokey Bear, is trucker slang for a State Trooper, or any police really. County Sheriffs are called County Mounties, local police are Local Yokels or City Kitties, and motorcycle cops are Evil Knievels. He gets a list of speed traps from the drivers headed in the other direction, "Hey, Eastbound, you got a Bear in the woods just past the 63 yardstick, and there's another one taking pictures at the 81. He's got a couple of buddies collecting autographs, too."

Another driver comes back with, "Got Bubblegum Machine rolling eastbound, guess someone won the jackpot."

"Thanks man. You're clear back to Sacramento. There was a City Kitty with a captive four wheeler on the southbound five," he replies. Now he knows that there is a speed trap at mile marker 63, and there is another one with an officer using a radar gun and two more giving tickets at mile marker 81. There's also a cop chasing someone east with his lights going.

Because he's so heavy, he climbs Donner Pass at a crawl, 10 MPH with the hammer down. Traffic whizzes past him. His time runs out while he's still climbing the hill, but there's nowhere to stop until he gets to the top. He'll have to fudge his logs again.

8:45 PM - Parked at the rest area at the top of the mountain, his stomach rumbling because he forgot to grab some extra food while he was at the truck stop, he compresses his miles a little and shows on his logs that he arrived at the the rest area about 30 minutes before he actually got there. All the regular parking spaces were full, so he had to park on the shoulder of the rest area's exit ramp, but he's out of hours so he will have to make do. As his stomach growls again, he remembers how Donner Pass got it's name. He crawls into the sleeper, exhausted, for his ten hour break, which will be up at 6:15 in the morning.

5:45AM - *Bam, Bam, Bam* Someone is knocking on his door. He opens the bunk curtains to peer out, bleary eyed, and groans as he sees the unmistakable Smokey Bear hat of a State Trooper. "Can you step out of the vehicle, please, sir." Looks like this day isn't going to be any better than yesterday. But he gets lucky. The officer just takes a look at his CDL, his medical card, and a quick glance at his logs and bills. "You can't be parking on the exit ramps. I'm gonna let you go this time, because I see you were out of hours, but don't let me catch you doing it again. I'm sure you don't want the $300 fine. Drive safely." Whew, that was a close one. He heads for the bathroom real quick to run a toothbrush over his teeth and stuff. As soon as the clock hits 6:15 he starts rolling.

Only a few miles down the road he pulls into the Agriculture Inspection Station. The officer asks him for his bills and he hands them over. The officer looks at them and says, "Please pull off to the side and open your doors, sir." Oh, crap, now what?

He pulls over, but he doesn't open the doors. He waits for the officer and the Agricultural Inspector to come over to him, "I can't break the seal, officer, you'll have to break it and sign the bills that you did so." But there was no problem, that was pretty routine. The real problem was what the Ag Inspector wanted.

"You don't have a USDA certificate for the grapefruit you are hauling. I'll need to inspect them."

That means the driver has to crawl carefully over all the pallets in front of the grapefruit in the 34° trailer, all the way to the nose of the trailer, to pull out one or two grapefruit for the inspector to look at. Fun, fun. He has to move cases of bell pepper slightly so he can fit without tearing the chute and worm his way back to the grapefruit. He grabs two and scoots his way back out. He pauses to snag a couple of strawberries on the way, since he still hasn't had any breakfast.

A quick slice to cut the fruit in half, and the inspector is satisfied. He tosses the first one in the trash, but, when the driver's stomach rumbles loud enough to turn heads, the inspector has mercy and gives the second one back, already sliced in half and ready to eat. Munching on his grapefruit half, which isn't so good without sugar, but he ain't complaining at this point, the driver heads on his way, down the hill and into Nevada. Now that he's rolling on the open road, he remembers why he loves this job.


Lucky for us, we haven't had all these things go wrong on one single load, but all of them have happened to us at one time or another. As a team, we don't have to worry so much about our hours because one of us can drive while the other gets a ten hour break in the sleeper, but things are a lot tougher for a solo driver.

I really wish that the people who make the laws, who design the rest stops with so few truck spaces, who load the trucks, and who decide that they don't want "dirty truck stops" in their towns would take the time to walk (or drive) the proverbial mile in a trucker's shoes. This isn't an easy job, or an easy way of life. I hope I've given ya'll some insight into what it's like to be a trucker. When you are a trucker, you aren't a trucker from 9 to 5, you are on the road for weeks, or even months at a time. You work around the clock. There's a lot more to it, it's a whole 'nother way of life, and it's a great big country out here.
Monday, September 29, 2008

Well, we survived L.A. without a scratch.

Going into California is always a worry. Cali is the toughest state when it comes to laws governing big trucks, and enforcing those laws. Going in on I-10 we have to pass the Banning scalehouse, which is the most notorious scale going. Many truckers have horror stories about the tough inspections there and being placed out of service for days. In the old days, there was a truck stop just East of the Banning scale that had a huge concrete dinosaur left over from the glory days of the Route-66 roadside attractions. If you walked up the stairs inside the gargantuan concrete beast you could look out the mouth and see whether or not the scale was open and doing inspections. Truckers would wait at the truck stop with a lookout who would call over the CB when the scale closed, and all those truckers would head out to make their deliveries. But those were the good-ole days, and the dinosaur is gone now. These days most company trucks have Pre-Pass and rarely have to pull into the DOT scales. (Pre-Pass is a little blue box on the windshield that beeps and shows a green light to give you permission to bypass the scales). We have Pre-pass, and the weigh-in-motion scale (a scale embedded in the roadway just before the scale) showed our weight ok, so we got green-lighted on through.

The speedlimit in California for Semis and vehicles pulling trailers is 55 MPH, while everyone else is allowed to zip past at 70 MPH. This not only makes for slow going, but causes headaches when you have to change lanes. Oh, and if you are caught in the wrong lane you can, and will, get a ticket.

Then there's LA traffic itself, scary even at 3:00 AM. In the daytime it's a complete horror show. I've seen drivers in, bumper to bumper traffic that is moving at 60 MPH, trying to drive while putting on makup, reading the morning paper, shaving, eating, talking on the cellphone, and combinations of two or more of these at once, all while zipping along only feet from the car ahead of them at highway speeds. They zip around you , cut in close, hit their breaks to take an exit, never caring for their own mortality. Drivers do this all across the country, but nowhere is as bad as California. It's enough to turn a trucker's hair snow white.

The other really bad thing about California is thier new anti-idleing law. We can't idle the truck for more than 5 minutes, or we get a ticket. I can understand that they are trying to do right by the environment, and they have a real problem with smog out there, but if you've ever tried to sleep in a metal box when it is 100 degrees outside... Well, obviously none of the lawmakers in California have ever had to. We are mandated by law to take ten hour breaks and get some sleep so we aren't driving tired. Our truck has a sleeper berth, so our company won't pay for hotel rooms cause we can sleep in the truck. If we can't idle the truck, we've got no AC, and it gets very, very hot. Not fun at all. As team drivers, we've got it a little better than solos because we don't stop as often, one of us sleeps while the other drives, but we still have to bump docks and wait to be loaded and unloaded.

So, California, for all its beauty and grandure, mountains, ocean, and Hollywood excitement - it's no place for a trucker. The thing is, though, it's got one of the busiest ports in the country, and it's the source of a large part of our domestically grown produce, which means it gets more than it's fair share of trucks.

Lucky for us, we went in in the wee hours of the morning, so traffic wasn't too awful. We dropped our load on the drop yard our company uses there, and were dispatched to grab a load from there and take it up to Tracy, CA. That meant we were gonna be going over Grapevine.

Now a big hill is nothing to take lightly in a big truck. Gravity can be pretty insistent when you weigh 80,000 lbs. And Grapevine is one of the worst. The thing is, you can't just use your brakes to keep your speed down going down a long hill. When brakes heat up, they don't work as well, and if they heat up too much, they don't work at all. The more you use them, the hotter they get. That's why trucks loose their brakes on hills - it's not a mechanical failure, it's just physics. The trick, then, is to get down the hill using your brakes as little as possible, and that means gearing down and taking it slow, and using a Jake brake. The saying is, "You can go down a hill many times too slow, but only once too fast."

Check out this YouTube video for an example of what happens when a truck takes a hill too fast.

This driver was going 70MPH down Donner Pass on I-80 in Northern California. According to one article, the driver had only had his CDL for nine days. Both he and his co-driver were killed.

There are a number of dangerous hills that are legendary among truckers, Grapevine, Donner, Cabbage, Fancy Gap, Tehachapi, Cajon, Fourth of July, Vail, and more. They aren't as dangerous as they used to be, but they can still kill if they are taken lightly.

California is home to several of the worst.

We got to Tracy early and we got a good night's sleep and unloaded the next morning at 3:00am. Then it was off to Watsonville, CA to pick up a load of produce bound for Pennsylvania. Watsonville can be a little scary. It's well off the interstate, and you've got to take some narrow roads to get there. In one spot you are squeezed up against the sheer side of a mountain and have to be careful your trailer doesn't scrape against the rock on the curves. On the other side of you there is a guardrail between two lanes of traffic and a sudden plunge down a hillside to certain doom. Mike says it reminds him of his time in Equidor pulling heavy equipment over the Andes Mountains. The whole area does have a bit of a third world feel to it, you hardly feel like you are in the US at all.

Then the mountains open out onto the San Juaquin Valley and fields of fruit and vegitables stretch away to the horizon. Soon after coming down into the valley we were engulfed by a thick cloak of fog that turned the world grey and kept us from seeing more than a couple car-lengths ahead. We crept through the errie wall of fog for about five miles, then it was gone as suddenly as it had appeared.

The San Juaquin is one of the most fertile areas in America, and it is a patchwork quilt of fields and orchards, a lush green oasis nestled between sere brown hills. We wove through on narrow roads avoiding pick-up trucks overloaded with migrant workers on their way to thier next field, big-rigs loaded with produce going in and out and every which way, tourists driving slow to drink in the scenery, and all the usual California nuts. As is usually the case, the place we picked up from was hard to find, tight to get into, and looked like it had been cobbled together by Victor Frankenstien out of spare buildings. We had to back down between two buildings to a portable ramp instead of bumping a dock as we normally would have done. But for all it's haphazard appearance they were professional and quick. We were loaded in no time and on our way.

We decided to take a shortcut to avoid San Francisco traffic on the way out, and it was a good thing we did. We found out later that if we had taken Highway-1 north we would have been stuck in a very long traffic backup. Apparently that morning there had been a fuel tanker jack-knifed on the 1, and it had the highway shutdown completely. Thank goodness we went through the woods instead. Then, it was up to I-80, over Donner Pass, and Eastward bound.

For all its faults, though, California does have some of the prettiest scenery.

The train in the above photo is the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Baily Circus train.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
When I was a child I had nightmares about bridges. Not screaming and waking in a panicked sweat sorts of nightmares, but vivid enough to stick with me after all these years. In those dreams, and they weren't all the same, more like variations on a theme, we would be driving along, usually in the Volkswagen camper my dad used to own, and in which we took many a family road trip, over a long bridge with many ups and downs and the bridge would suddenly end, sending us plummeting into the water below. In the less extreme version, we would come to a point where the bridge would slope gently down into the water, keeping us from going forward, and we would turn around only to find that our way back was blocked.

I'm not sure why bridges have played such a prominent role in the landscape of my dreams. In my waking life I have sort of a love-hate relationship with them. As I drive over a long bridge I find myself gripping the wheel with white knuckles as my overactive imagination, like that of Odd Thomas, is prone to providing me with images of worst case scenarios and unlikely demises. Yet they also fascinate me, and I find myself looking forward to the big ones, to flying across a span with water on all sides. I guess it's akin to my love of roller coasters, even though I know I will regret my decision to ride for a split second at the apex of the highest drop just before my stomach leaps into my throat and the screaming begins. But don't get me wrong, I don't consider it a phobia by any means, just a little thrill of fear that adds spice to the experience.

Last night I finally got to ride over the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest single span entirely over water in the country at 23.87 miles long. Mike was driving and, though I was supposed to be sleeping, I couldn't miss the opportunity. It was like riding a lit ribbon through endless darkness, the lights of the shore were so far away they seemed like distant stars. The joints of the bridge made a sound as we passed over them, tha-dump, tha-dump, tha-dump, like an accelerated heart beat. It seemed to go on forever. As usual, my mind provided me with all the scary "what-if"s. I couldn't help but to point out to myself that 77,000 lbs moving at 65 miles per hour would break through that tiny concrete rail as if it were made of paper mache. A blow-out on a steer tire could send us veering through it to a watery demise in the lake below. But, despite the macabre turn my imagination tends to take, or perhaps because of it and the accompanying jolt of adrenaline, I enjoyed the experience.

There are several large, famous bridges in his country. I have been over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, another 23 mile span that only misses out on the title of longest by less than a mile, and because of it's most unique feature - two tunnels that break up the span by plunging the roadway deep beneath the bay to keep the channel open for navigation by large ships. And I've crossed the George Washington Bridge, the suspended perpetual two level traffic jam that is one of the main arteries into New York City. There are three more that I want to experience, but have not yet had the chance: The Golden Gate Bridge, The Brooklyn Bridge, and the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia, which holds the title of highest bridge in the country.

We passed through New Orleans and the bayou back-country in the dark down to Houma, LA. It wasn't until after we delivered and were on our way to Baton Rouge for our next load that the watery grey light of a rainy day illuminated the lingering damage from the storms that have hit that area so hard. Trailers lay smashed beneath fallen trees, and many rooftops sported blue tarps. Brush and limbs lay scattered everywhere, and great piles of rubbish from the clean-up effort lined the narrow roads waiting to be picked up. But they are rebuilding. Cajuns are hearty people, and they seem to be facing their hardship with the grace and strength of will of a people used to weathering such storms, both literal and metaphorical.

We picked up our next load, and headed west on I-10 to California. Passing through Houston and the area just east of Huston showed us more of the devastating power of mother nature. We saw trees and poles snapped like toothpicks, piles of limbs and leaves that had been scraped from the highway to allow traffic to pass, missing roofs and twisted metal, and so many homes and businesses without power. That area will be a long time recovering.

But now we are on our way to sunny California - the trucker's bane. Tune in next time to see if we manage to survive L.A. traffic.
Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sorry I haven't updated in a couple of weeks, things got a little hectic, and internet access has been hard to come by. We weathered the outside edge of Hurricane Gustav at my parent's place two weeks ago. Only had a two foot rise in water, and it didn't even top their little seawall. Ike brought the water up four feet or so, but when they rebuilt after Ivan Dad had the property raised by three feet, so even though the neighbors had water in their yards and carports, my folks were high and dry. Thank goodness for lessons learned.

The photo above is the view from my parent's place before hurricane Gustav. This photo is the view during the storm. The water came up another foot after I took this.

Mike walks on water after Gustav.

So, it rained the entire time we were there, but we were too busy running around a seeing all my many and various relatives to go to the beach anyway. Mike has become very interested in genealogy research (he's got a program called Family Tree Maker and he's determined to find everybody we could even remotely be related to) so we went to visit most of my living relatives, and found the graves of several deceased ones as well. Sometimes I think he goes a little overboard with it, but it keeps him out of bars and casinos so I indulge him. And I have learned some interesting stuff about my family.

I learned that my great-grandfather rode the rails as a hobo during the Great Depression, and that my great-grandmother was one ballsy lady who told him that the next time he went wandering no to bother coming back. And I learned that my great-great grandfather on the other side of the family built a boat in 1901 and named it after his daughter, my great aunt Nellie Meta, and that, after a long and interesting history, and changing hands several times, it was listed as sunk, and a navigation hazard, in 1986 in Galveston Bay, TX. I also learned that my great uncle served on the USS Hornet in WWII - that was the aircraft carrier that the Doolittle Raid was launched from. It was badly damaged in a battle sometime after the Battle of Midway and the crew was ordered to abandon ship. My great uncle and his crew mates spent many hours in the Pacific waiting to be rescued. The ship was scuttled, and, even though badly damaged by bombs, torpedoes and Kamikazes, it took repeated torpedoes and bombs from our own fleet to finally sink it. I never realized that my plain vanilla family had so many interesting stories to tell.

I was sorry to see the week end, but on Saturday we headed for Texarkana, Arkansas and our new job.

Our new employers put us up in a hotel for the week, and every day, from Monday to Thursday, we sat in a classroom re-learning all of the company's procedures and policies, and reacquainting ourselves with the world of trucking. Monday we took our DOT physicals, pre-employment drug tests, and road tests. I was vary nervous about the road test, but I did pretty well, even if I did grind a gear or two. Mike drove like he'd never even been off the road. We got our truck assignment and keys on Wednesday. The truck we were given had been recovered after another driver had quit and abandoned it. The previous occupant had apparently had a cat. Or maybe several of them. The interior was coated with an inch thick shag carpet of shed hair. It was nasty, and it stank. We did a thorough inspection and wrote up all the defects, all the while holding our noses and praying that they would clean disinfect and flea dip the thing before we had to drive it. The guys in the shop assured us it would be cleaned out before we had to move in, but having dealt with trucking company promises before, we weren't holding our breath (except when we had to actually get into the truck).

We did hit a snag in the middle of the week. Because truck driving is such a safety sensitive occupation, in order to hire us the company has to have a paper signed by Mike's doctor certifying that none of his prescriptions would interfere with him safely operating a big rig. He's only on blood pressure and cholesterol meds, so that should have been no problem - but it was. It seems that both of the doctors who could have signed the faxed form had been deployed to the middle east, and since Mike was a little overdue for a check-up anyway, he had to see another doctor before we could get the signature we needed. So, we had to drive all the way back to Junction City just so Mike could have his blood pressure taken by an Army doctor and we could get a single signature. But at least we got to sleep in our own bed for two more nights before we got on the road.

He saw the doc on Friday, and we were back in Texarkana by Saturday night. In fact, we arrived in Texarkana about the same time Ike did. We were in rain from the time we left Kansas, all the way down, with the wind growing harder as we converged on the hurricane. By the time we were in Arkansas the night had grown pretty wild. 60 MPH wind gusts threatened to throw us off the road, and several times we witnessed the searing blue flashes of transformers dieing glorious deaths. We arrived in Texarkana to find that our more pessimistic predictions had been correct. There wasn't a room to be had anywhere, they were full of Ike evacuees. Power was out all over town, and our only option was to head to our company's terminal (hereafter referred to as the SRT yard for simplicity's sake) and hope that they hadn't reassigned our truck and that it had been cleaned as promised.

Lucky for us, they were true to their word, and the truck was still ours, and it had been expertly detailed. There wasn't even any lingering cat odor. There was nothing we could do to get on the road any sooner than Monday because the office staff doesn't work on the weekends, so we would have to spend two nights in the truck there on the yard. We ran back and forth moving our gear from trunk to truck in a mad dash, trying to keep it from getting too wet in the driving downpour.
Sunday was spent making trips to Wal-mart and the local CB shop and truck stop, picking up all the last minute items we needed to set up housekeeping in our new little apartment on wheels.

By lunchtime on Monday all our paperwork had been signed, initialed and properly filed, and we were dispatched out on our first load.

It's now Thursday morning, and we're sitting at the receiver for our second load. We picked up in Arkansas, ran out to Wyoming and swapped loads with another driver, and now we are in Northern Alabama. We've gone 2762 miles in three days. We're already pre-planned for our next load, which will take us into the bayou country south of New Orleans.
Sunday, August 31, 2008

8/28/08 10:30AM

Well, so much for leaving on Thursday or Friday. I got home from my last day at Footlocker, and my husband says, “OK, get your stuff loaded, let’s go.” So we pulled out a little ahead of schedule. But, then, I guess I should have expected it. Neither of us is much good at waiting. We got all the way to Clinton, Missouri, and stopped for the night.

As usual, he’s driving, and I’m navigating. He gets a little nervous about some of the routes I pick, ever since the trip we took to Branson where I routed us onto forest service trails for a shortcut through a state park, but we weren’t in a big truck and he wanted the shortest route. It’s a good thing we were in his little 4-wheel drive that trip, ‘cause some of those little dirt roads were pretty rough. We didn’t get lost then, and we’re doing pretty good on this trip, too.

We’re still in Missouri, somewhere east of Springfield on US-63 as I write this. It feels good to be back on the road, falling back into old patterns. I’m remembering things that I haven’t thought about in two years – like odd numbered highways run north and south, even numbers are east and west.

In our hurry to leave, we forgot some stuff, like our CB radio, my raincoat, a lot of little odds and ends that make life easier on the road, but nothing we can’t replace. The biggest headache I’m having right now is that I can’t get my broadband PC card to connect to the internet. We’ll probably have to stop in Memphis, where I know for certain that I’ll have Verizon coverage, and call tech support. Again. For the third time. I’m not quite at the ‘ready to pull my hair out and froth at the mouth’ stage, but if I can’t get it up and running by tonight I probably will be.

The number one reason internet access is so important right now – Hurricane Gustav. We’re heading down to Gulf Shores, Alabama to see my parents before we get back to trucking, and it looks like we might be getting there just in time to evacuate.

On the plus side, I ought to be able get some interesting photos out of the deal.

Oh, and for the record, gas out here in Middle of Nowhere, Missouri is $3.39 a gallon.

Friday, August 22, 2008
"Got no time for spreading roots, the time has come to be gone..." -- Led Zepplin - Ramble On

Take a deep breath and dive in.
Luckily, I've swam in these waters before. I mostly know what to expect, but its still a little terrifying to change jobs, leave home behind and set out on a new adventure.

I'm drowning in a sea of small details - What should I pack? There's only so much room in the cab of a semi, even with a condo roof sleeper berth. Clothes, socks, underwear, toiletries, my laptop, my camera, my cell phone, battery rechargers - do I have all my chargers and power cords? Should I take my tripod? My portable lightstand and strobes? Will I need them out there? Will I be wasting space, or risking missing some great photos? Are all the bills set up to pay online? Have I missed any? Do we have enough savings to cover them until we start getting paid? Who's picking up our mail while we're gone? Do I have everyone's e-mail adresses? Have I said goodbye to everyone, hugged all the people who need hugging before I leave them behind?
These questions, images of just how I will stow everything so it fits in the smallest number of bags, reminders and checklists all run circles in my head, competeing for time with the butterflies in my stomach.

But it's what I long for, to be out there in the world. Free. Driving a truck isn't perfect. We have deadlines to meet, strict rules about what roads we can travel, even when and for how long we have to sleep, but even so, we're outside the walls.
I've always dreamed of just tossing a pack over my shoulder, grabbing my camera and just going... walking, hitchhiking, exploring, learning, climbing mountains, hiding from rainstorms, no place to be, no schedules, no rules...
But that's not going to happen in a world where we have a mortgage to pay, food to buy, retirement to plan for. But Trucking gives me a chance to do a little of that from my corner office on wheels.

I've enjoyed the break from being on the road, I've learned a lot, and met some wonderful people whom I will never forget. I've gotten a taste of what it's like to just be still, and it was nice. But my heart will always belong to out there... to seeing what's around the next corner.

Trucking isn't always interesting, sometimes it's long waits and heavy traffic and bump the dock and go to sleep, but I'll try to update this blog about once a week or so. I want to share the interesting stuff, and I want to try to stay connected with all the folks I'm leaving behind. My whole life has been about moving around, one Navy base to another, one town to another, one truckstop to another, but I never forget the people I meet and the friends I make, and it always hurts to leave friends behind. But, maybe, this way you can come with me... just a little.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
-- J.R.R. Tolkien - The Hobbit

About Me

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I'm a 34 year old wife, truck driver, writer, and photographer with a love of adventure and travel. I am a Libertarian, and a total sci-fi geek. I studied archaeology at Auburn University.


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