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.


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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