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.

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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