Trucking seemed a natural choice after I retired from teaching. I wanted an interesting income producer and it might as well involve seeing the country. The same spirit attracted me to trucking that had made me fly aircraft, raft rivers, and backpack into interesting places.
I did it for a short while, met some neat people, saw some nice country, and learned a lot. What had gotten me into it? Mostly, it was the travel. Not aimless wandering, but purposeful journeys. In addition, I like being alone with my thoughts and the best have always come to me while driving. Once on the road, I'd keep my own counsel while doing a job that needed doing. I'd be the sole decision-maker as to how I got it done.
I registered at a truck driving school. Several weeks later, I had a commercial drivers license with all the truck endorsements there are (hazardous materials, double and triple trailers). Two weeks later I hired on with a trucking company headquartered in a western city, several hours from home.
There would be a week of orientation, well done by a man who drives a trip now and then but mostly conducts classes, starting with a new group each week. He was full of hints about every phase of trucking.
A livewire who described himself as a loner: Contradictory? Not at all. Many good teachers are reserved individuals who come alive in front of classes. They're bursting with information about their subjects and have the necessary spark for teaching it. I hope I was a little like this when I taught.
The company conducted a physical exam, a drug test, and a "personality test." The latter was conducted by a serious-looking former policeman known around the company bunkhouse as "Mr. Personality." Talk was, if you got by him you were as good as hired.
Mr. Personality discovers a fair number of bad actors-wrongdoers with arrest records they forgot to mention, for example. Trouble is, some end up driving for other companies, in charge of forty-ton monsters in your lane on the interstate.
He's a walking lie detector, with a sixth sense about which applicants have earned further investigation. He had us fill out a short questionnaire that asked, if memory serves, whether we'd ever stolen from our employers and whether we were completely honest. The strong impression was given that he and we would go over it rather thoroughly. With some, he probably did. Applicants with something to hide probably expect the worst, and they show it.
A few were summoned out of the orientation class and not seen again. The majority of us were officially hired at week's end.
After orientation week, I was introduced to my trainer, who announced that we'd be trucking to Atlanta, Georgia. He'd been with the company for several years, but had just completed the short course to become a trainer. I was his first trainee.
He was good at it. His job was to teach me additional points about driving the truck, show me how things went on the road while driving the assigned trips, and how to deal with shippers and receivers at loading docks. He genuinely cared about the quality of his teaching, whereas other trainees told of trainers who seldom came out of the sleeper berth, though they were being paid extra as trainers.
The idea was for me to jump right into it, so I drove first toward Atlanta-and would have, the trainer said, even if there had been fog or ice. New drivers don't have much stamina at first, so he soon took over. We alternated driving and sleeping. Driving a truck is quite different at first and you don't feel comfortable. It demands lots of attention, sucks up your energy, and you tire fast.
Even inside the sleeper berth of a truck with the curtain drawn, the various sounds tell you approximately what's going. I knew my trainer was listening, not sleeping. How could he sleep? I was totally green. When it came my turn to sleep, I had trouble for a different reason: You might think trucks would ride smoothly, but they lurch and jerk along. Potholes, of which there are plenty, feel like bombs.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind-just what I'd bargained for. Across the midwest at night. Sunrise on the St. Louis Arch. Over the Mississippi. Early morning in Illinois. Down Eagle Mountain toward Atlanta.
Then back across the country. Through the piney woods of Georgia and Alabama, then across Mississippi and Arkansas at night. Another sunrise on the road, this time in Oklahoma. I was driving as we dropped sharply into the valley of the Rio Grande at Albuquerque, then made the slow climb up the other side toward Arizona. I was asleep again by the time we entered California.
The next load went up California's Central Valley, through central Oregon, and into eastern Washington. From there, it was all the way across the country again, so far into Maine we were almost in Canada.
We crossed the grasslands of southeastern Colorado, then the panhandle of Oklahoma toward Amarillo. We ventured into the depths of Chicago, found our way under some freeway construction for a delivery in the Twin Cities, and drove southward along the Pacific coast to San Diego where we squeezed down a narrow alley to deliver meat.
So far, trucking seemed an ideal occupation. A truck driven by a team of drivers can proceed about a thousand miles per day. We hadn't been pressed for time. I had known my way around the country already, but had never seen so much in so short a time. For that reason, it was exciting.
This trainer had some rough edges. Our personalities, interests, and values were vastly different. But we weren't there to remake each other, and didn't try. Still, these trainer-trainee relationships often wear thin after several weeks on the road together. This one did.
He and I lived about a hundred miles apart, so I got home more often than I would have otherwise, though the potential rarity of getting home hadn't dawned on me yet. At his home, he wasn't required to give me meals and a place to sleep, but he did. I appreciated it.
On the negative side, he seemed to fear anyone who was in a position of authority, or who was charged with enforcement of laws. This primarily meant the people who operated weigh stations, those with the authority to inspect trucks such as the DOT (Department of Transportation), and police of any sort.
He never wore his seat belt, but would snap it on when entering a truck weigh station. His opposition to seat belts seemed to be simple rebellion against various state laws. Nobody was going to make him do anything! He wouldn't go through a weigh station at all if he could use another route.
Truckers must keep logbooks, showing how each twenty four hour period was spent. There are lines for "on duty-not driving," "driving," "sleeper berth," and "off duty," with limits on total duty time. A real genius at falsifying his logbook, his driving hours always appeared legal but bore little relationship to what he'd really done.
I understand that on some days drivers feel like going forever while other days are worse, but the legal limit is inflexible. Truckers commonly falsify their logbooks. My concept of logs was different. It came from recording time as a pilot and trips as a river guide, and all the entries had been true. Logbooks were personal records also, not just something to show cops, the company, or the DOT. I wasn't going to lie to myself.
But some have been in conflict with authority all their lives and for them, that struggle is primary. First it was the kindergarten teacher, then the grade school principal, then the high school vice-principal in charge of discipline, and finally the cops. Life for these people is a never-ending battle against authorities who, obviously, are out to get 'em.
North and south, in view of both oceans, and finally back to the home terminal. There, I was given a road test and teamed with another student like myself. We went to Omaha, Cleveland, took a load from the Detroit area, and so on. But we both felt ready to go out solo, and did. I was assigned to a big truck and sent forth.
Halfway to Arlington, Texas, I had a flat tire and spent until eleven o'clock that night getting it fixed. I still had plenty of time, and my delivery was late in the afternoon. Then I spent literally half that night driving thirty miles east of Dallas to get pallets from a company trailer parked for that purpose at a large truck stop. Then it was back to Ft. Worth before daybreak to load beer bound for California. Not much sleep that night.
The rearmost tandem (the eight trailer wheels) can be slid forward or back to better distribute the load, so weight limits per tandem are not exceeded. This one was stuck, and one tandem was overweight. Perhaps I'm lucky not to still be in some Texas prison for that, but I did stop at a shop in Van Horn where a helpful man with a big iron rod and a sledge hammer got it free.
Dispatch instructed me to switch trailers in El Paso with another driver who took the beer on. Most of Texas is gentle topography, but the western tip is harsh desert. My kind of place. I wanted to drive down into the Big Bend country once again, but it wouldn't be on this trip or with this vehicle.
A load waited at the large meat packing plant near Friona, Texas, where cattle go in the back and beef comes out the front onto trucks. Again, it took much of the night to get there.
I took part of that load to Portland and the rest to Seattle, where I had to nose into a blind alley and back across a four-lane street to the dock. I unloaded 15,000 pounds myself because it was too late in the day to get a lumper (an independent worker who unloads trucks and gets paid by the driver, who then is reimbursed by the company). It was good exercise, but my unloading pay was a good deal less than the company would have paid for a lumper. I took a load of fish from Tacoma back to the home terminal and another driver took it on.
I had things to do at home that just weren't getting done. Every detail of my life, except truck trips, had come to a halt and I needed to catch up. I simply couldn't be gone for several weeks, home for a few days, then gone again. I had bills to pay, things to fix, mail to answer, a couple major projects, and some minor ones. My dispatcher advised me to take a short leave of absence, but I really had no intention of driving again.
To be sure, some drivers live in their trucks. They don't maintain a regular home, but I wasn't one of them. This was an aspect of trucking that hadn't occurred to me.
A year and a half later, I gave it another try at the end of a long winter. It had to do with the feeling that I'd left something unfinished. At least I knew in advance that my whole life would stop. I wouldn't be able to work on the airplane I was building. I wouldn't be able to do any raft trips, any writing, or any photography. Nor would I be able to do the million little things that come up around home. I went back reluctantly, thinking I could handle the demanding schedule, and knowing I missed the actual driving.
The company sent me with a (different) trainer, so rusty were my trucking skills. I expected several weeks of this but after a trip across the country to Massachusetts and back, the trainer said he saw no need for more.
Another road test. Three of us were in the truck together, with the company examiner. We took turns driving around the city, backing into simulated docks on the company lot, parallel parking, and doing a backing maneuver called a serpentine in which there's a row of three markers, about a truck length apart. You start on one side, back around the center marker, and end on the side you started from, parallel to the row of markers, and facing the same way.
Trucks back up just like cars with trailers, except they're big. There's little visibility toward the right-rear once the trailer comes over a little, so you avoid blind-side backing. You don't want to learn these maneuvers by the numbers because few real loading docks are like the simulated ones. Each dock is a new challenge. Having the feel requires a sense of where the trailer is.
Guess what-the trailer is going to go in the direction its wheels are aimed! Let's see now: The rate of change of wheel direction with respect to distance, times distance to go . . . Yeah! Imagine a curved line from the trailer wheels to the loading door you're backing toward. Are the wheels staying tangent to that curve? Is the curvature constant? What are the energy and momentum effects when rounding curves or pulling hills on the road? Do the concepts of calculus and physics really help you drive a truck? Yes, because everything in the universe is connected to everything else.
Of the three in the truck, I was the only one who passed the test. One young man flunked for his second time. I was quickly assigned to a tractor and sent forth again.
My first trip was to Portland with frozen bakery goods that had come from the east. After I'd made two local deliveries, I was sent a message to come back by the company headquarters and trade my new tractor for another driver's older one. New drivers don't get new tractors.
A real case of housekeeping-in-a-truck, this couple had a parakeet, five hundred (!) videotapes, the necessary television set, antennas, and so much other stuff that I don't know where they slept. Their sleeper was just a slope of possessions. The mattress wasn't visible, and a quick stop would have sent the stuff forward like a mudslide around their feet. It took them four hours to move out of that tractor. Hours I'd counted on using for a good start toward Portland.
Finally, I hooked up the trailer and was able to get in a few hours of driving. Well after dark the next day, I arrived at a Portland truck stop and set my alarm for 4:30 a.m.
Soon after I awoke, a guy came up to my truck in the dark and asked if I'd go to the back of the lot and pull someone out of the mud with my truck. I smelled something. Was this a ruse to get me out there and rob me? I declined and heard his lamentations about how mean I was. True perhaps, but I remained alive and got to my first delivery on time, still before sunup.
I did the lumping myself. It was a load of bakery goods, and each box weighed only eleven pounds. But when I finished in Portland there was still product on the truck. Why? I called my dispatcher. There were more deliveries in Kent, Washington, fifteen miles southeast of Seattle, that I hadn't been informed of. Sure enough, digging deeper into the paperwork, I had bills of lading for those deliveries. I'll take partial blame, but they hadn't been on the trip assignment.
The communications system in the truck told me which places in Kent to go and at what times. But I had no street directions. That evening I drove north and parked at a truck stop near Tacoma. In the morning, I found a convenience store near Kent where I could stop with a truck and also get back out of. The lady within directed me to my first delivery. After that, it was daylight so I phoned the other customers and got directions.
I learned a great deal about Kent, Washington, which seems to be a supply center for Seattle. Similarly, I learned my way around several other places and was able to write lots of directions for the company computer database. Other drivers going there would then be able to bring the directions up over the communications system. An example might be: "Take Exit 247, turn right, go three blocks, turn left on . . . Customer is half a block on the left."
Navigational mistakes are hell in trucks. You don't just drive around looking for places as you can in a car; trucks don't turn around easily. You should know where you're going beforehand. I rather enjoyed writing the directions. Maybe they'll save other drivers from gnawing doubt and grievous error.
What was good about trucking? I liked observing the geographical changes as I crossed the country. It amazed me to be on one coast, then on the other coast in a few days, and maybe back again. Long-haul trucking means you'll know the nation's highways as well as your driveway, and I enjoy that.
One trip went from New England, through New Jersey, and across the Appalachians near Wheeling, West Virginia. Then I'd go across the Midwest and finally to Flagstaff, Arizona.
Why do the Appalachians fade out gradually to the west, whereas other ranges begin so abruptly? In a geological sense I know roughly why, but it's good to experience it mile-by-mile. The scene along the Pennsylvania Turnpike fascinated me. Ridge after ridge, tunnel after tunnel. In a collision with Europe some millions of years ago, that side of our continent received a mighty blow and was crumpled. Continental drift has since reversed and the Atlantic Ocean has appeared. But full recovery has not occurred in the Appalachians, and won't soon.
Across the country to Arizona-a great trip! Structure of the mid-continent is obscured by Midwestern sediments upon which the great rivers run. The next trip went down the hill to Phoenix. Actually, it's several ups and downs, with more down than up. Phoenix is nearly 6000 feet lower than Flagstaff. I was on my way to swap trailers in Blythe, just across the Colorado River in California.
I got there late at night. The other driver didn't arrive until two o'clock in the morning from Los Angeles. We switched, then I drove most of the way back toward Phoenix because I had to deliver the load of ice cream there by 9:30 the next morning. Another night with little sleep. I didn't see much of the Arizona desert in the dark on that trip. The receiver checked the temperature of the ice cream. Satisfied, he unloaded it.
Then it was back up the hill to Flagstaff with non-dairy creamer, east through Amarillo, Oklahoma City, and St. Louis to Chicago, and then to the Twin Cities. Another good look at the heartland. I would spend the next several days in the northern Midwest.
This was late summer of 1993, the year of record flooding in the Midwest. I crossed the Mississippi at three different places as the water receded: On Interstate 70 within sight of the St. Louis arch, on Interstate 80 near Davenport, Iowa, and on Interstate 90 upstream between Minnesota and Wisconsin. From the high bridge at St. Louis, I thought the river looked reasonably normal until I realized there were buildings, trees, and poles sticking out of the water. Along Interstate 90, there was so much water I could barely identify the normal channel. Even up north, the Mississippi is a big river but not always that big.
I went to Ottumwa, Iowa, and noticed that the city water works, on low ground near the Des Moines River, had a gigantic, freshly-built dirt dam around it. I'd just delivered a load in Des Moines, near the same river, where water had recently been up to the lip of the loading dock. Faucets in that city had been dry for several weeks.
The trucking company wouldn't pay the toll on the Ohio Turnpike, so it was across that state on Highway 30-near Van Wert, Delphos, Upper Sandusky, and Bucyrus. Another trip had gone along Highways 224, 250 and 20 in Ohio, where stately farm houses stood on land that was just turning green in spring. There are some pretty spots in Ohio, though there is no Grand Teton, El Capitan, Golden Gate, Cataract Canyon, or Mt. Rainier. You just examine the country on a different scale.
I spent a couple pleasant days near Wilkinsonville, Massachusetts, waiting for a load assignment. I was parked close to a pond with a little waterfall at the end, at a wide place in the road across the street from where I'd just taken a load. I walked half a mile for pizza in one direction, and half a mile the other way for pleasure. I only ran the truck engine every now and then, to operate the air conditioner. This was a microcosm of peace, hidden in a sea of bustle.
A westbound trip on Interstate 90 was beautiful, despite the proliferation of signs in South Dakota that garishly advertise tourist traps, particularly near Mt. Rushmore. I'm a mountain man, so why do I enjoy the prairie so much?
"We visited the northwest and all the famous mountains were in the clouds!" What a common complaint! Well, I drove west into the state of Washington on that trip. Peaks of the Cascade range stood on the horizon like jewels.
What a difference a mountain range makes! Ellensburg, about in the middle of Washington state, is in dry country. But cross Snoqualmie Pass toward Seattle and you've emerged from a rain shadow. Drive further west onto the Olympic Peninsula and visit (not by truck) the Hoh Rain Forest.
A rain shadow is dry compared to what? The wet side, of course. The Hoh Rain Forest is an extreme example. Water dripping from vegetation was in the Pacific Ocean a little earlier. Go a little farther west and there is the ocean-provider of moisture and controller of climate in these parts.
A few place names I particularly noticed were Oink Point Road in Minnesota, a fireworks store in Wyoming named The Big Bomb, and the Horse Heaven Hills in Washington. What sort of guy is Grumpy, who runs an Idaho auto and boat place? I followed Zzyzx Road in California later, in a car, and came to a most interesting place.
I saw a certain mystique about trucking. Embarking on a journey is a powerful experience. It was always there for me, despite annoyances that arose. Watching an airliner take off, tuck the wheels up, and turn toward its destination can send shivers down my spine. I hope the pilots understand the majesty of what they do.
The City of New Orleans is a song sung by Arlo Guthrie about a train that runs "five hundred miles before the day is done" down through mid-America. What excites me about that train trip? Energetic progression toward a goal?
I used to camp with my parents on the Pacific coast, just west of Santa Barbara, California. An early childhood memory was the roaring, full-speed passage of the orange and black Southern Pacific Daylight, a passenger train that ran between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Later, my grandmother and I rode that train. I'm sure those experiences contributed greatly to my present view of things, forty years later.
Where does that river go? Looking at the Colorado River as it moves off into the Grand Canyon from the Navajo Bridge in Arizona, or at the Rio Grande in its deep gorge from the high bridge near Taos, New Mexico, I tried to imagine. But almost all rivers (like highways) soon curve around bends. You can only trace the path of the gorge for a ways.
Well, I bought a river raft and learned how to row it. Several rafts later, I know where some of those rivers go. I owned an airplane for a few years, and used it in the same way-journeys of discovery around the west.
In a journey of another kind, the conductor strides to the podium in the orchestra pit and raises the baton. The music begins almost imperceptibly, and grows. More than the subtle stirrings of the River Rhine, it's the beginning of an epic journey involving gods, giants, Rhinemaidens, dwarfs, men, and a ring of power.
Richard Wagner must have known full well what he was doing with such a long, soft opening that leads inexorably into a complex tale about greed, fate, lust, acceptance of destiny, the end of the gods, and the beginning of a new era. Der Ring des Niebelungen is a series of four long operas, written in Europe over a century ago.
I happen to know that it takes about as long to drive a truck across Illinois as it takes to perform Die Valkyrie, second of the four operas. That's how long the tape lasts, anyway. When one vast journey is congruent with another one, the pleasure intensifies.
It isn't just a truck trip, an airplane departing, rowing a raft out into the current, a train speeding through the night, or a conductor raising the baton. All these are developing odysseys, bound for destinations with possible sub-adventures along the way.
Nearly every truck in the country has a CB (citizens' band two-way radio). A lot of good information comes over CB to truckers about weather, construction zones, or other things up ahead. I had advance warning about a drunk driver going the wrong way on a freeway once. I made several deliveries where you're assigned a loading door over a CB radio channel.
Truckers need CB radio, but some use it to help each other violate the law, exchange stupidities, or fence stolen goods. Lot lizards (truck stop prostitutes) solicit in a pseudo-seductive manner over CB. "Pant, pant, I want that man in the green truck." Comical, but it must generate sufficient commerce to be worthwhile.
Some drivers change their voices and adopt a certain vocabulary when they transmit, to make themselves sound even less literate than they really are. There's almost a sub-culture among truckers relative to their use of CB.
Interstate 95 from New England skirts the northern edge of New York City and crosses the Hudson River on the George Washington Bridge for points south. But before that, another freeway splits off to the south. Somehow I got onto it while coming down from New England bound for New Jersey. I saw what I'd done as soon as it was too late. But there I was in a truck, headed into one of the worst parts of NYC.
Sneaking looks at a map while driving a truck in New York City makes for a busy time, but I figured it out, went via a surface street, and got back onto Interstate 95. At home now, it seems so simple. It seemed less so at the time.
Most bad stories I've heard about trucking involved NYC: Naked prostitutes gyrating on the sidewalks, ruses to get you down some alley so thieves can steal your cargo, sporadic machine gun fire nearby, and worse. "Don't even stop for red lights," was advice I'd gotten. I must report that the inhabitants I saw seemed more interested in matters of their own than in hijacking my truck, but I suppose they'd try to look like that, wouldn't they?
I made good my escape across the George Washington Bridge to Edison, New Jersey, which turned out to be a relatively pleasant place.
I once missed a TRUCKS USE LEFT LANE sign in Nebraska and got stopped. But I wasn't abrasive toward the patrolman, and only received a warning.
Traveling east made me glad I live in the west. Things are too urban back there. You get the feeling there's not a single plot of ground in the east upon which somebody hasn't settled, or that isn't developed in some way. This is not strictly true, of course. There's the Appalachian Trail country, Mt. Washington, Great Smoky National Park, the Blue Ridge, the coast of Maine, and other nice spots. But the hemmed-in feeling remains.
I loved to go west. The closed-in feeling drops away a little as you get to the Great Lakes region. It's entirely different, more open, across the Midwest but I particularly like the windswept, barren, vastness of Wyoming. I'm secure in the knowledge that nothing can live in great numbers there.
Trucking can provide a good check on reality. I used to teach, in high school geology, about drumlins. These are hills that were deposited underneath the great ice sheet, shaped like proverbial teardrops, oriented north and south in the same direction the ice flowed, with the blunt ends north. But I'd seen few, if any, drumlins.
Driving west from Milwaukee across Wisconsin, little hills were everywhere. They were of such shape as to make me think, "If these are not drumlins, then drumlins are but imaginary figments that don't exist." I saw scores of them that afternoon, which reinforced their reality.
Trucking often gives an inside look at American industry. If you buy name-brand orange juice, don't feel too smug about it. I've seen orange juice concentrate come from a plant where one brand label was applied for a while. Then another label, then another. Name brands, store brands, same juice. This would be true for many products.
I sometimes questioned the efficiency of what I was doing. I hauled 42,000 lbs. of pancake mix from Milwaukee to Seattle, so that people in the northwest could enjoy buttermilk pancakes at Denny's Restaurants. Going back, I hauled 29,000 lbs. of frozen pancakes eastward for a different shipper. That load went on to Ohio with another driver, so people there could enjoy pancakes at Hardee's.
I also hauled frozen corn from Oregon to Iowa. That's right! I hauled corn to Iowa, and it wasn't because much of Iowa's corn was, at the time, sticking up out of floodwater, looking unhealthy.
This sort of thing went on before, during, and after the Midwestern flooding. Not just with corn and pancakes, but with many other goods, due to some fundamental flaw in our national supply structure. The two trips with pancake mix, then with pancakes, burned about 700 gallons of diesel fuel.
There are several possible calamities in our future. One of the worst is that a great asteroid is somewhere in space, moving inexorably for a giant collision course with Earth. A lesser-but still serious-calamity, given that much of what we eat and enjoy comes by truck, is that someday the diesel fuel will be gone. What then? We can't change the first of these, but we can postpone the second.
A great job? In part, but why didn't it work? What's great in the morning can get very tiresome by late evening. Days were especially long if I stopped for lunch. I didn't appreciate being utilized about fourteen hours each day in exchange for a normal day's wages. Oh, I got a little time off-usually at some truck stop. No time was truly my own.
The company tended to assign trips that couldn't be done in the time allotted, unless I'd been willing to falsify my logbook and drive like an idiot. But I wasn't willing. People at the trucking company who sell the services must tell customers, "Yeah, sure. We'll get it there by Thursday morning. Our drivers don't eat, sleep, or obey the law."
Others at the same company tried to keep the trucks running safely. They held safety meetings, urged us to slow down on the ice, don't drive sleepy, and otherwise take things easier. I saw a fundamental conflict between these two groups.
I concluded to do the trips safely in any case. If they gave me an impossible trip, the fault lay with them and not with me, provided I'd done my part. Trucking would have been a very pleasant enterprise if the trips could have been driven in a series of hard, but reasonably normal, working days. This was the major irritant that made me leave.
Bound from Phoenix to Chicago, I could have figured a legal way to arrive on time, but not a safe way. After two and a half hard days, I could legally have slept a couple hours and then driven most of the night. But I wasn't going to do that for the company, just to satisfy a promise some salesman had made.
I showed up on time to get a load in Milwaukee, at seven in the morning. The cargo wasn't ready. The guy at the loading dock even had to make a pallet. I thought he was joking, but I saw that pallet when it came off. It was new-looking, and had that month's date on it.
I finally got underway at about three in the afternoon, about six hours later than I should have. You can drive around 350 miles in six hours. My first meal of the day was dinner, and a fast one at that-sandwiches from a convenience store. I made up most of the time enroute to Seattle, but not all of it. I hated playing catch-up.
I arrived several hours ahead of time to pick up a load in Ottumwa, Iowa. The procedure was to drop the trailer, park, and pick up a loaded trailer when it was ready.
My cargo was loaded twelve hours late! Allow them a couple hours from when they told me to show up, and this still represents close to 600 miles of driving time lost. No way could I get to Massachusetts on time. This wasn't the trucking company's fault, except they knew full well how typical this was of that particular chain of meat packing houses. I was the one who heard snide remarks from receivers about being late.
The company would preach, officially, about not falsifying log books. But others at the same company would like me to have done exactly that, to have driven straight through to Massachusetts, endangering everyone else on the road.
"We told him not to do that stuff," they'd say. Right! I didn't get paid any more for driving at three o'clock in the morning than I did at noon, and I was unwilling to roll a truck with me in it, and possibly you under it, because I'd gone to sleep at the wheel.
The company had just experienced several roll-over accidents for exactly this reason, though many roll-overs occur when drivers take curved freeway exits too fast. A common scenario: A driver dozes at the wheel and the truck drifts onto the shoulder. Suddenly awake, the driver tries to swerve back onto the road, but it doesn't work. Over goes the truck! Sounds exciting, but no thanks.
A friend hauled a temperature-sensitive load using a reefer (refrigerated) trailer. If the load got warm it would be ruined. It represented plenty of money, and much trust in the trucking company. What happened? The reefer unit failed and the weather was warm. She phoned the company and was told where to get it fixed. But it would be too late.
A certain individual at the trucking company instructed her to get the reefer repaired and simply recool the load while proceeding to the destination-as though nothing had happened. I know my friend to be an ethical person, yet she was being used to help perpetrate a fraud!
The fault lay squarely with that less-than-honest person at the trucking company whose responsibility it was to resolve such problems. His low-ball attitude was that nobody would know the difference! She'd followed instructions- but now, in retrospect, she's indignant.
A signed bill of lading is a contract between the shipper and the trucking company for delivery of the cargo in good condition. Her signature wasn't on the bill because she'd switched trailers, but she made the delivery. Her integrity was on the line, and she'd been undercut.
There was a recording thermometer in one of the boxes, as is often the case with such loads. The customer certainly did know the difference, and raised an unholy-but-justified commotion about it. This matter should have been settled in a straightforward, honest manner between the shipper and the trucking company. It got settled, but in a way that built no trust.
I spent an afternoon with my friend some months after I'd left the company. Our conversation turned to what she called "moral fiber," which she indicated was lacking throughout society. Let's make no mistake-many people are ethically concerned and it shows. Still, it's refreshing to find an example of it. Diogenes, with his lantern, looked for an honest man. Here was an honest woman, who credits her family and upbringing. So do I, but mostly I credit her.
By the sort of person she is, my friend is clearly quite feminine-something I recognize but can't define. So what isn't it? Femininity does not mean lack of ability, disorganization, or anything else of that sort. Some people were told the opposite as children, came to believe it, and have acted accordingly without further thought.
While quite young, I thought women didn't even know the several curse words. Well. Three of us rode to high school together and often drove around town afterwards-not out for trouble, necessarily, but not paragons of virtue either.
One day, we spotted a mother walking with her child. One of us (not me, certainly) leaned out the window and yelled, "Get that dog on a leash!" It was a horrible, shameful thing to say! For him to say.
I doubt she remembers it, but her powerful words and vertical gesture showed me how wrong I'd been. This was the crude beginning of my recovery from sexism. That lady could have steamed silently, but her unrestrained response started me down a better road. Many moldy, sexist beliefs have fallen away over the years because of her.
My friend has been driving a truck for several years now. Not to prove anything about being a woman, not to find a man, but because she chose this way to develop herself as a person. She's a strong person and good at what she does. She doesn't intend to drive as a permanent occupation, but loves it now. She worked indoors once-a good job with good people, but hated the enclosed feeling. She knew what had to change, and her view is much better now.
Trucking has been her way of traveling the entire country. Before, she'd hardly been out of her home state but now enjoys the different regions of the country-the Appalachians, Rockies, Great Basin, prairie, northern woods, desert, coast, and the south. There's real magic in that! Besides, it means a lot that she's trusted to transport a load from point A to point B in a safe and timely manner.
Not everyone should drive a truck, of course. Certain people, thankfully, wouldn't consider it. But femininity does not decrease one's aptitude, just as masculinity does not increase it. Femininity doesn't guarantee you can cook. Masculinity doesn't prevent it.
Lots of females, not just my friend, have had to do better than males to be considered equally good. Ideally, women doing traditionally male jobs should be unremarkable. Calls for an end to sexism should be unnecessary.
Males who fear competent women (and fear takes various forms) are poor excuses for men. There are females who think they have to feign incompetence, or lack of intelligence, to be attractive. My friend does not shrink from accomplishment or responsibility. Another female friend of mine is an airline pilot. Another plans for disasters in earthquake country. Others are whitewater river guides.
Several decades ago, our local school system had a scheme whereby they paid male teachers more than females. More recently, boys' basketball teams played in a large gym at the school while girls' teams played in a tiny gym across town. Battles ensued and justice prevailed, though equality in education remains an issue.
In another arena, the Church of England recently ordained a group of female priests, despite threats of resignation from some of the old guard. Most certainly, the reasons stated by these complainers were not their real reasons.
Each advancement has been over the objections of traditionalists. Social conservatives tend to remember things from what they consider the "good old days," and then clamor for restoration of those things. Sometimes, they've wanted to restore the notion of women-as-ornaments, instead of women who work to make themselves competent members of society.
Let's not overlook obvious physiological differences, which generally we celebrate. Where important differences exist, society will just have to adjust. And adjust it can.
Few women will make football teams as guards or tackles, though there are female place kickers. My friend doesn't feel muscled enough to unload trucks, so she hires lumpers. Physical differences are there.
Carrying this to an extreme, the airlines kept women out of the cockpit for years, saying they weren't strong enough! Strong enough for what? This had nothing to do with flying ability. It was sexual bigotry.
My friend absolutely refuses to fulfill the popular image of the roughhewn, foul-mannered, loud, crude, truck driver. She knows who she is, and it isn't that. She smiles inwardly when someone is surprised she drives. At first her dad tried to dissuade her, but she's a determined person and was going to try it. Now he enjoys riding with her, and both her parents take pride in what she does.
There's not a molecule of boastful swagger in her. We shared stories of errors we'd made driving trucks. She and I had both missed the same elusive freeway entrance near Detroit and had wandered around the same neighborhood in trucks before sorting it out. She told how she'd backed into a fire hydrant once. I'd broken a board beside a loading dock in Massachusetts. I told her about my narrow escape from New York City.
We continued to share misadventures. She "won't hear" of going to New York City. In fairness though, this isn't the only dangerous place. Her scary-place experience occurred in a tough section of Baltimore. Such urban locales are really for street-smart people whose background is in bar-brawling. Hers isn't.
She once thought she'd been signaled to take the non-scale lane at a weigh station. She thought she was doing right, but in effect blew (bypassed) the weigh station. She was chased down, enthusiastically interrogated by the state patrol, and finally released unharmed.
Neither of us had laughed when we did these things. She'd been near tears a couple of times. But months or years afterward, we shared these incidents with a smile. Our misdeeds had been distressing and embarrassing, but not particularly heinous.
My friend is a private person. She does very well alone, likes to be alone, and certainly doesn't require entertainment. All this goes to the core of being a trucker.
She listens to the CB much more than she talks on it. We laughed about some of the stuff you hear. One time, another truck driver noticed my friend and said, "Slow down so I can get up alongside and look at you!" Other times it's been, "What's a pretty thing like you doing driving a truck?" How original! But an explanation would be far beyond the intelligence of the questioner, so why try? Sometimes she just turns the CB off, as I often did with mine.
When she started, her first trainer didn't think women should be driving trucks-a real confidence builder. Learning a new skill is stressful enough, and her teacher didn't think she should be there! Not because she did anything wrong, but because he was filled with stupid personal prejudice. Irrational, but my friend still had to deal with him.
She'd requested a trainer who didn't smoke, but got a chain smoker. This is quite bothersome in a confined space, and we've learned recently about the effect of second-hand smoke. Moreover, he knew the location of almost every fast-food place in the country that a truck could get into. My friend is primarily a vegetarian, so this didn't work for her.
Before long she demanded, and got, a new trainer. Her training then went fine, and she drove as part of a student team for a shorter-than-normal time. She's been trucking ever since, fine-tuning this strange life-style to get what she wants from it.
Had she experienced any sexual harassment from the company, other drivers, or from customers? No, aside from the primitive behavior of her first trainer and those few remarks over the CB, she said. Annoyances, but no real problem.
There are differences between us. She judges truck stop showers according to the water pressure whereas for me it was days elapsed since the last one. She rather enjoys going to Chicago but I had mostly evil experiences there. She doesn't enjoy crossing Wyoming but it's one of my favorite places.
Similar desires led us both to trucking. It didn't work for me, but has for her. She apparently has less to attend to at home, lives much closer to the company's home terminal (minutes, not hours) and enjoys being gone most of the time.
My friend is a rare individual. If personal characteristics were graphed for the population, she'd be off to one side or the other of each curve. Sometimes just a little, sometimes a lot. She's not unusual because she's a trucker, she's a trucker because she's unusual. I think striving to be average is like having a disease, but she seems free of that virus.
My last series of trips went like this: I rode to Denver with another driver to pick up the truck of someone who had quit. I got there and drove to a truck stop just east of Denver, where I remained for most of two days.
Finally, a load assignment came-meat from Greeley, Colorado, to Long Beach, California. I looked forward to that trip. I went back into Denver, unloaded some pallets from a company trailer, and decided to sleep there too.
I started the engine at 5:00 a.m. to leave Denver but a low radiator coolant warning light came on. Investigation by flashlight showed that antifreeze was dripping out. For whatever it might be worth, I added the water in my canteen, then drove to a nearby truck stop where more was available. Then to another truck stop where a mechanic replaced a short length of hose. I drove up to Greeley, about an hour north of Denver.
But there had been a mistake. The load to Long Beach wasn't going to be ready until Monday and this was only Friday! Communication with my dispatcher followed. He went to work finding me another load. I almost got one to New York City, but my enthusiasm for that wasn't high. I learned of a restaurant in Greeley where I could park, eat, and sleep.
A green puddle appeared under the engine. Antifreeze was still dripping from a heater hose. Four valves connect the engine block with the heater system, so I shut them off and kicked dirt over the puddle to save small animals from painful death. The dripping stopped, but the heater didn't work. I was not happy.
A new trip assignment came: A load of beef from Monfort, a big meat packer in Greeley, to the Bad Place. Not the place where bad people supposedly go upon expiration, but a place where good people are tormented in the present.
It was a nice drive across the prairie, but not warm in early autumn. At Grand Island, Nebraska, another mechanic replaced more hose and two valves. My heater worked again and I continued. But just east of Des Moines, at night, the warning light came back on. I stopped at a small truck stop and restaurant that magically appeared.
I wasn't going to look in the radiator while it was hot, so I ate dinner instead. Then I borrowed the restaurant's bucket, added about three gallons of water, and headed for the big truck stop near Walcott in eastern Iowa, arriving well after midnight.
In the morning, more hose was replaced. The mechanic said he could just splice the hose but I wanted it fixed right, and the company could spend some of money they were saving by having me drive that old wreck. Antifreeze no longer dripped out, and the heater worked.
This was one of the few relaxed trips I'd ever gotten, but I'd spent over fifteen unpaid hours at three different shops. I was still on schedule, but my attitude was in decline. I headed on toward the Bad Place.
Chicago, the Bad Place, is full of amenities: Colleges and research centers, symphony orchestras, museums, and bookstores. The finest in American culture. There are parks, bike paths, major-league sports, and the waterfront. None of these are obvious from a truck. My experiences in Chicago had been irksome or downright ominous.
My trainer and I had gone in there before dawn with a load of paper bags. The destination was around a corner underneath the elevated commuter railway. Vertical clearance was generally adequate, but each support post had a flared top that would snag a truck. We'd been instructed to walk around the corner, and someone would come out and guide us in.
Walk around the corner? Groups of toughs stood here and there. We were parked at an abandoned gasoline station. The trainer said to leave my wallet in the truck, and we locked the doors. We walked past an old broken-down building. Around the corner we went, walking confidently, past the thugs, knowing that if we looked hesitant our time was up. It was a bluffing game. Thoughts crossed their evil faces, but we were left alone.
Another trip to Chicago involved backing into a small dock while blocking a busy street. Horns blared, opinions were given, and crude gestures were made, but I ignored all that. After one trip around the block to get the trailer better aligned, I hit it the first time. Was it skill? No, probably adrenaline.
Make a wrong turn in Chicago and you'll probably come to a low bridge-the place is famous for that. I checked a bridge-clearance map of the city the night before I went in again with a meat load. Dots marked low bridges. The redder the dot, the lower the bridge, and the map looked as though someone had spattered red paint.
If you stop, especially with a high-dollar load like meat, you're likely to get robbed. I made this meat delivery at 5:30 a.m., close to downtown. The customer told me that thieves steal right off their dock in daylight, so I'd better put my padlock back on the trailer. I did exactly that, got out of there, and headed around the end of Lake Michigan toward Detroit. I'd love to visit Chicago again by car, but not by truck.
No way was I going to make Richmond, Michigan, forty miles northeast of Detroit, on time. The speed limit was 55 mph, there's a time zone change, and Interstate 94 was under repair in many places.
Nothing bothered me more than being given delivery appointments I couldn't keep, and it was happening again. Often, I'd gotten up in the middle of the night to go make a delivery, but this time it wouldn't have helped.
The customer in Richmond was one of the most pleasant I ever dealt with. They invited me to park in their driveway to sleep, which I did. The small town was pleasant, and I unloaded early the next morning. I even got a chance to visit with the man to whom I'd sold my airplane a year earlier.
My disposition improved, but I still was not in the mood to go to another urban hellhole. I asked dispatch for a trip west, if possible. That evening I was switching trailers in Livonia, a Detroit suburb-my empty trailer for one already loaded with frozen food bound for Algona, Washington.
The forecast for the northern Rockies wasn't encouraging, so I kept south on Interstate 80 rather than going up across South Dakota and Montana. This was just a bit farther, but I didn't want to cross the Bitterroot mountains in a snowstorm.
A good trade, and it gave me the option of going up the coast if things really got bad. I'll stand by that decision, though the early-season storm never came. I cut across a wonderfully desolate corner of Wyoming, got onto Interstate 84, then 82, and arrived in Ellensburg, Washington, after dark. I reset my personal shower clock, and had a meal.
At best, Interstate 90 would have only gotten me to Ellensburg a bit sooner. I could have gone a little further that night and saved about an hour in the morning. The worst case had looked much worse, because the company schedule allowed no time for blizzards.
I arose a little after three o'clock in the morning, drove into Algona through some fog, delivered on time at 5:30 in the morning, then went over to a truck stop near Tacoma for breakfast. By then I'd decided not endure this anymore, told the company so, and asked for a trip back to headquarters. I got one, but had to drive two hundred miles across Washington state to load.
I finally got to sleep by 10:30 that night in Oregon, a long day by any measure. Nineteen hours, for which I got around seventy bucks including ten for each stop I'd made. Not worth it.
Oh, I'd been able to relax for some of that time and my logged working time was legal. But I'd done nothing that day that wasn't for the company's benefit, nothing I would have done otherwise, except eat. My decision remained unchanged.
I was willing to drive hard when necessary and I expected odd hours, but this was ridiculous. There were other things in my life besides trucking. But I'm glad I tried it. It was a look at America from an entirely different perspective.
I enjoyed driving the truck, became reasonably good at it, and would certainly do it again on a different basis. I became practiced at dealing with people on loading docks, which is a matter of seeing what their jobs are and how to work with them. My two dispatchers had been good to work with.
I loved the travel, which always included a touch of adventure. That's what got me into this in the first place, though my look at many places was superficial. I got to examine many truck stops in detail, but really wanted to spend more time in other places. Now I will.
Other drivers, for a variety of reasons, tolerate
it quite well. But I got out of over-the-road truck driving. Since
then, several letters have come from the company inviting me back
to work. They need drivers badly. Now why is that?
Back to Tom Rampton's pages