Sunday, October 18, 2015

I'll get around to it eventually

I loaded up in Tacoma. The load was paper. Big, brown, rolls of paper.

Once I got down past Sacramento, I took 99 south in order to avoid the construction delays on I-5. I was ahead of schedule; not terribly, but enough that I knew for certain that I would make my delivery on time, early even.

When I got down to Bakersfield, the amber Caltrans signs had changed to read "GRAPEVINE CLOSED". The Emergency Broadcast System interrupted the local NPR station with news of flash flood warnings. It started to rain.

In Bakersfield, most of the trucks turned east and took 58 towards Mojave. They were most likely heading to Las Vegas and points eastward; they had no reason to go over the Grapevine. Past the cutoff to 58, I pretty much had the freeway to myself.

I figured that, whatever the problem was, Caltrans would have it long fixed by morning. I pulled over at a small Truck stop and parked for the night. It was still daylight, I had only 150 miles to go and my load wasn't due until 2:00 pm the following day. There was plenty of room to park, and I chose a good spot along the end of the row with an easy exit.

As dusk fell, more and more trucks came in. The lot was soon entirely full, they kept coming. Now it was dark and the trucks just parked every which way. In the morning, we learned that, because of mudslides, the CHP had also closed Highway 58. Bugger!

Foggy, too.

From listening to news updates on the local NPR station, watching the web page of the local TV news station, following along with the (highly recommended) California traffic app and listening to the knuckleheads on the CB radio, I now figured that I wasn't going much of anywhere anytime soon.

By 9:30 in the morning, I was getting pretty antsy. The rumor going around was that Caltrans was going to open up I-5 by 5:00 pm, but my load was due at 2:00. Drivers huddled in small groups, discussing strategy. There was another way around this mess: by taking Highway 166 west, through Maricopa and New Cuyama and over to Santa Maria, we would would meet up with Highway 101 which we could then take south to Los Angeles.

Everybody else had the same idea. It was a pretty stupid idea.

A long line of trucks soon clogged up the road. Just west of Maricopa, right at the top of the hill, a semi truck stalled and completely blocked the westbound direction of the two-lane road. The CHP halted westbound traffic until a heavy wrecker could arrive from Bakersfield. That took awhile.

Hwy 166 west of Maricopa

When the errant tractor-trailer was finally hooked up and removed, traffic was quite backed up. We drove at 15 mph for hours. It cleared up a bit after that, but came to a standstill again a few miles east of Highway 101. All the vehicles that would normally be on Interstate 5 were now trying to coexist on a much smaller freeway. It didn't go that well.

From Santa Maria all the way down to Santa Barbara, the Friday rush-hour traffic crawled along at 10 to 15 miles per hour.

Soon, all the trucks ran out of time (permissible DOT hours of driving time) and started dropping like flies. Highway 101 has no truck stops or any real places for trucks to park, so they just parked; hundreds of semi-trucks parked alongside the shoulder of Highway 101 wherever they could find a place wider than 10 feet wide.

I pulled over and slept near an off ramp in Carpinteria, just south of Santa Barbara. The local Police ignored me. The next morning, I was on the road before daylight. I made it to my destination by 8:30.The receiver grumbled a bit, but agreed to unload me on a Saturday, almost an entire day late.

My company gave me another load heading north. I drove back up I-5 and over the (now cleaned up) Grapevine.

Once back over the hill and onto to Highway 99, I stopped in at the same truck stop, wandered over to the nearby cafe and treated myself to well-deserved chicken-fried steak for dinner.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours.

Every time I get loaded (or more accurately, my trailer gets loaded), a seal gets put on to ensure integrity of the load.

The seals are made from brightly-colored plastic or finger-lacerating aluminum, occasionally made with a braided cable or a steel bolt-like thingie, but never with wax or a with a kiss. Each seal has a special number and that number is dutifully recorded upon the shipping documents and who knows where else. The number on the seal must match the number printed on the bills.

At a lot Shippers, someone comes out from behind their glass window, follows you outside and puts the seal on your truck for you; they wait impatiently for you to shut your cargo doors and close the latches and then they bless your load with the seal. After that point, with shipping documents finally in hand, you are allowed to drive on down the road.

Sometimes, a uniformed guard will double-check the integrity of your seal and record the number just before you exit the gate. (The guards are always polite. Go figure.)

The first time that I get a chance stop to pee is when I also will put a special padlock on the hasp. It's special, because it is designed in such a way to make it more difficult for a pair of bolt cutters to snip the shackle. This feature gains me maybe an extra 30 seconds in security, but it enables me to sleep without worry.

With that padlock, I am hoping to discourage someone messing with my load. I am not worried about organized crime as much as I am worried about teenagers hoping to climb inside, grab something interesting and flee in their Camaro. (I would never hear them. I sleep with earplugs; truck stops are noisy.)

Casual crooks don't know what's inside my trailer, it could be anything, really.

Sometimes I haul alcohol, sometimes ammo, sometimes power tools, but most of the time it is much more mundane; sacks of rice, sugar, giant rolls of brown kraft paper or something equally boring.

Today it was cups and lids for Jack-In-The-Box.

The custom is that when you get to the other end with your delivery, somebody with a clipboard is supposed to earnestly check and record that the seal was still intact with the right numbers on it to see that it hadn't been messed with. It's hard to mess with seals without it being plainly obvious.
 Modern truck seal technology is marvelous.

(On a side note: I pass through a California Agriculture Inspection station about once a week where all trucks have to stop and show their bill of lading for perusal by the uniformed Agriculture Technician dudes. They don't slow down  us (regular, familiar) trucks that much, but I have seen them break seals on the odd, unfamiliar trucks; badly painted rentals and such. Afterwards, (assuming that they're not transporting a load of marijuana) those inspected trucks get a new special California Ag seal so the poor driver doesn't have to explain the missing seal to his boss.)

The high-value loads are where all of this makes a difference; Fred Meyer or Lowe's guards (for example) are going to make certain that the load of home appliances and power tools remains untouched by human hands until a staffer at the other end checks it out and blesses it.

Much of the time though, nobody really cares much about the seal. The person behind the window hands me my bills and a fresh, new seal. ("Put it on your own damn self!") At the receiver, they usually just tell you to cut off the seal, open your doors and back up to door number such-and-such. The Lumpers are verifying the count of the merchandise as they unload anyway, God forbid you be over or under on your numbers. Company Drivers have long since been vetted; we are not going to risk our jobs over some stupid cargo.

When I need to cut a plastic seal, I use my Swiss Army knife, I have a proper snippering tool for the finger-lacerating aluminum ones. When it's a bolt seal, the guard shack always has a pair of humongous bolt cutters available to borrow. At Home Depot, the guards use macho power tools that produce a terrible racket and shower sparks all over their uniform shirts.

I save the broken seals as long as I am there, just for the rare event that someone wants to double-check. I put them in my pocket and throw them into the trash once I've left. It's really a dick move to litter in the parking lot of your customer.

Besides, they have cameras watching my every move.

This May Trucking load for Lowe's had three seals.
Good indication that it had expensive home appliance and power tools inside!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Idle talk

"Well tonight I got the front door cant always have the rocking chair..Pig Pens got that back door closed just told me on the air. Just checked out the westbound and Road Hawk says shes clean! Looks like a money making run for me and old CB"

I have a CB radio installed in my truck.

Now please: just forget everything that you think you know about CB radios. This is not the 1970s. Whatever phrases that you picked up after watching "Smokey and the Bandit" are long gone, Daddio. 

First, a little nomenclature: The accepted name for a Truck Driver is simply "Driver". So don't ever call a Driver "Good Buddy" unless you want a sock in the nose. (Also, while I'm thinking of it, never ask a Driver who they "work" for, only who they drive for.)

Anyway, it is now the 21st century and even with ubiquitous smart phones and WiFi, the CB still has its place. For now, anyway. Admittedly, a very, very limited place. (Their usage is on the decline, to put it kindly. Maybe one in twenty Drivers uses one nowadays. If that.)

Drivers still need to be able to communicate with the other truck drivers in the immediate area. Usually we don't actually personally know each other (so we haven't exchanged phone numbers) but we do need to talk to each other and the CB still has its place. It's kinda quaint, actually.

I bought my CB with Pilot Points. I saved up my points for about a year and then traded them in for a shiny CB radio that looks a lot cooler than it really is. It truly is impressive-looking with its blinky lights and chromium switches, but most normal CB radios are "all show and no go": they're really only effective to about five miles. They're not HAM radios; you cannot talk to Tierra Del Fuego, but you can communicate just fine to the other trucks within the immediate area.

When there is a terrible accident up ahead around the bend, the Truck Drivers immediately warn each other. We have already thrown on our four-way flashers, have started to gear down and have moved out of the affected lanes well before the Prius drivers have the slightest clue what is going on (which is when they immediately cut over to the right lane, endanger lives and jam up the traffic even more).

When the traffic is jammed up for miles, the local truck drivers helpfully advise us "Over The Road" drivers the secret detour around the traffic jam (I have taken advantage of this and it has saved me hours of time). Also, certain Shippers insist that the Drivers communicate with them over the CB. They glare at you if you say that you don't even own one.

We warn each other when there is a State cop sitting at the bottom of a steep grade with a radar gun, advise each other whether or not the scales are open and we warn other drivers when they have a light out on their trailer out (a simple burnt-out bulb could get us fined at the scales).

There are serious drawbacks to CB radios. Any idiot can broadcast whatever they want over one, and believe me, they do. If you believe everything you hear on the CB, then apparently all truck drivers hate our PresidentSikhs and all Swift Drivers. (It's only true about the Swift drivers)

Sometimes, it is just to talk. Last week the Driver up ahead of me called me out on the radio. "Hey Market!" he said. "Look over to your left! There's a big herd of elk over there". And sure enough, there was. I thanked him for pointing them out to me.

If you need me, I'll be on Channel 17, most likely, since I only roll on I-5.
It's channel 19 everywhere else.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

The mysteries of the orientation

Once you get hired at a new trucking company, they don't just hand you some truck keys and pat you on the butt before sending you off, you have to go through company orientation first.

Market Transport flew me up to Portland on a Sunday afternoon and put me up at a hotel at a truck stop. Monday through Thursday was spent going through orientation.

Orientation for a trucking company involves, among other things, a D.O.T. physical, a driving test and a drug test. They had already looked at my driving history (good), my accidents (none that involved school buses) and my speeding tickets (none). My urine didn't have any sticks or stems in it, and on Thursday afternoon I was issued keys to a new truck.

The new truck is a shiny new Volvo with an automatic transmission. Brand new with only 25 miles on the odometer. Number 4475.

I climbed inside for the first time. I was in unfamiliar territory. The seats still had plastic on them. I now was tasked with figuring out what all the strange knobs and switches did. Most things (such as the yellow and red brake knobs) were the same, but some stuff was now placed in odd locations.

My stinky old Peterbilt was nothing compared to this new truck. The Volvo is a lot more modern and is chock full of computer-assisted everything. The fuel mileage is supposed to be a lot better. (I am still breaking in the engine, but right now it is at 6.5 mpg) Happily, it turns on a dime (the old Peterbilt needed 40 acres to turn that rig around).  

Instead of the endearing Eaton-Fuller 13-speed manual transmission that was in my Peterbilt, there is an automatic transmission controlled by push buttons (just like a Desoto). Apparently, the microprocessors controlling the automatic's shift points react faster than this old coot can shift gears. I'm OK with that. In addition, my left knee greatly appreciates not having to wrestle a clutch repeatedly in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

All of the newbies were released from Orientation and we were all were issued an initial load to get us out of there. Most of us were given paper loads; giant rolls of brown kraft paper, loaded on end (and prone to shifting enroute). These were to be loaded down in Springfield, Oregon. We were leaving from Portland.

Up until then, I hadn't actually driven my new truck out on the road.  I had only moved it around in the yard at five miles per hour. It was all new to me: what the power and acceleration was, how noisy it would be, and I was fretting about it. Fretting about the unknown. (Fretting about known things simply doesn't take up enough of my time, I need to fret about the unknown as well to get my fretting money's worth)

I shouldn't have worried: the truck drives fine, it has plenty of passing ability, it is sufficiently comfortable and the radio gets all the NPR stations.

Monday, July 20, 2015

This little piggy went to Market

Once I graduated from Trucking school, there were only a handful of companies that would offer me a job; they were what are called “starter” companies. 

A starter company’s business model is to hire trucking school grads at extremely low wages and then work them silly until either they quit or run away sobbing. Indeed, most quit within the first six months. My former employer, May Trucking has a turnover rate of 115% (sic).

Despite their shortcomings, they gave me a chance, taught me a lot of skills, instilled some good safety habits and allowed me to get the on-the-job experience that I needed.

But enough is enough.

Most Drivers at May leave within the first six months, few ever even make it to one year. I stayed for a full two years (I am a really slow learner). I started at May Trucking on April 26, 2013 and unloaded my gear from the truck on April 27th, 2015.

I spent a couple of months goofing off after that, but eventually I had to find a new job; one that would meet my needs in regards to pay and hometime.

Hometime is the most important to me; I want to be home at least once a week.
I applied to several companies, but only one could meet my requirements: Market Transport out of Portland. Their turnover rate is only 33%.

I am now a “line driver” out of Portland. I now solely go up and down I-5. “Dry” loads only, no more “Reefer” loads. 

If you need me, I’ll be on CB channel #17. 

Sunday, June 01, 2014

You say potato, I say po-tah-to.

After I dropped my “dry” load up in Boise, the dispatch message directed me to swap my empty dry trailer for an empty reefer trailer at our yard in Payette, Idaho. Payette is where my company got its start, but it’s a really boring place with nothing to do, except swap trailers, which is what I did. Don’t bother ever visiting Payette unless you are in need of an empty trailer.

I drove my empty reefer trailer over to Ontario, Oregon, which is right across the Idaho border from Payette. Ontario is the home of Ore-Ida products, a company that turns nutritious, but bland potatoes into very tasty mouthfuls of salt and fat. 

Ore-Ida is owned by Heinz.

My instructions were to turn the reefer on in advance (in order to give it a fighting chance of keeping something cold) and to show up in Ontario at the Americold cold storage facility by 8:00 am. I did as I was told, and in a couple of hours my trailer was filled with crinkle cut fries and hash browns and countless other forms of what had once been the proud, noble potato.

A really grumpy Americold dude placed a red, plastic seal on my truck, checked to make sure that my reefer was set to -10 f. and then sent me on my way.

My destination was the URM Stores warehouse in Spokane, WA. URM Stores is sort of an independent grocer distributor.  I had been there before so I knew where to go, what to do and where to park for the night. It was a short trip; only about 400 miles away. 

I average only 52 mph, in case you were wondering.

The thing about grocery loads is that they want you to deliver really, really early, usually well before dawn, but they don't want you to hang out there beforehand. The truck stops around Spokane are pretty tiny and their parking spots are always filled long before I arrive. A few blocks away from the URM Stores warehouse is a Conoco station with a dirt lot, and that was my destination. It can only accommodate about ten trucks, but I got there early enough to get a spot. It’s a pothole-filled, mud lot with a rude slant, but it was good enough for the night.

My appointment was for 6:00 a.m. the following morning. I was ready before 5:00. I got my truck over to the URM entrance gate by 5:35, set the air brakes, climbed down out of the tractor and approached the guard shack. I had my Bill Of Lading paperwork in hand.

“Late?” the friendly guard asked me. “No, early, actually” I replied, then added “I’m not due until 6:00.”

He looked at a clipboard and double checked the info on his desktop computer. Then, he made a phone call. “No,” he said, “this load was due at 4:00 am.”

He told me to come back in two days. At friggin' 4:00. “Happens” he said, as if to reassure me that I wouldn’t be the first newbie driver that had gotten totally burned by somebody else's error.

I was gobsmacked. I checked my dispatch; according to my dispatch, I was on time. I drove back to the Conoco gas station and grumbled. I called in to our main office, and, in a whimpering voice, asked them to confirm my appointment time. Their records were the same: 6:00 am on Monday morning.

Normally, my company would work around this somehow. They would, in normal circumstances, just have me drop my trailer and give me something else to do and somewhere else to go. Some other schmoe could deliver the hash browns in a couple of days. But I was way up in Spokane; kind of out of the way and there was nobody else to deliver the Tater Tots but me. I would just have to sit for 48 hours until my newly revised appointment time, which was the soonest one the guard could get for me.

Spokane is an interesting city; there are plenty of trendy restaurants and cool things to see and do. Unfortunately, I was several miles from the interesting part and, besides, I had no transportation. We are not allowed to just drive our trucks any place we want, and probably wouldn’t be able to park a 53 foot-long trailer once we got there.

The Conoco had some hot food for sale, but only whatever they could deep fry. I had my normal food stash onboard too, but I hate relying solely upon it. I treated myself to some breaded Conoco chicken parts one day and some Conoco deep fried beef and bean burritos the next. I also bought some chocolate milk. Sometimes, I like to really live it up.

Tuesday night, at 9:00 or so, I checked my iPhone’s alarm to make sure that I would be woken up in time for my 4:00 am delivery. Then, I drifted off to sleep.

At about midnight, I woke up to silence. When running a reefer, silence is a really bad thing. The reefer diesel’s engine is only a few feet away from your pillow, so you always hear it running.

I put on my shorts and T-shirt, grabbed my flashlight and hurriedly climbed down barefoot to look at the digital display and see the reefer’s temperature. The temps were climbing fast and were up to about +20 degrees. Before I had gone to bed they had been at -10 degrees. After a couple days of sitting, I had managed to run the reefer’s fuel tank out of diesel fuel.

I am clearly an idiot.

It was already past midnight, my delivery was at 4:00 and my reefer temperatures were way too high. I was going to spoil an entire load of frozen food and definitely lose my job in the process. I was ruined! I called dispatch in a panic. A reassuring voice told me to drive immediately to the nearest Flying J truck stop and buy some fuel for the reefer.

I got there and filled the tank, but then I couldn’t start up the reefer. No matter what I did, the reefer’s diesel engine wouldn’t fire up and now its battery was almost flat. The fuel tank for a reefer is mounted very low, down near the wheels, and the reefer engine is mounted way up high. It wouldn’t start because the fuel couldn’t get to it; it needed to be primed. I called Dispatch back; by this time I was imagining the worst. (In my mind, I had already been fired and sent home on Greyhound)

Dispatch transferred me over to “Over the Road Support”, the in-house department which is staffed by crusty, old mechanics. Luckily, they are staffed around the clock with crusty, old mechanics.

Over the phone, a crusty guy explained to this shaken newbie how to stand up on the catwalk and prime a reefer engine, in the middle of the night, while wetting one’s pants. After what seemed like an eternity, the engine actually fired up. Almost immediately, the temperatures in the trailer went back down to below zero. I called Crusty back and thanked him as though he had just saved my life.

I arrived to the consignee on time, load intact, got unloaded quickly and was out of there by 7:00 am. 

Saturday, March 01, 2014


Each day can be a bit trying.

Finding the address for a shipper in an unfamiliar city, unhooking my old trailer and locating the right new trailer in a sea of nearly identical, white trailers, backing up to it (while ensuring that the fifth wheel is at the right height), raising the balky, rusty landing gear, then scaling the load correctly, dealing with bill-of-lading paperwork, finding my way back out, negotiating crazy urban rush hour traffic (just to find the correct freeway on-ramp) while just trying to keep sane might give out the impression that a Trucker's daily life is a lot more trouble than it's worth.

I keep busy; driving, observing, listening. Trying my best to keep a positive outlook. The job can be really stressful: what with impossibly tight schedules, way too much caffeine, highway potholes that are as big as a Buick and disrupted sleep patterns all part of my daily life. There is plenty of time to think about how I arrived here, plenty of time to ponder what, when (or even if) I am ever going to do something else. Thinking about past failures, missed opportunities, long-ago loves lost, repeated errors in judgement in just about everything. But pondering, reflecting and ruminating can quickly turn to worry, brooding and dwelling. And I need to avoid all that.

A lot of what I have to do (before I actually get to go somewhere) really is a big drag, but after getting my load, I reap the reward: I get to drive a big, shiny, powerful truck out on the open highway and see lots of cool stuff.

And there is always something cool to look at.

My truck has a gigantic windshield to peer out of. I sit up high; I look right down into cars and spy upon the drivers (and see what they're up to), I spot interesting old cars over backyard fences, I see what people are growing in their gardens. I can also see far ahead; scanning the horizon for any traffic hazards, "stale" green lights, loony pedestrians, sneaky Cops, glorious taco trucks, pretty girls and lots of wild critters.

I saw a bald eagle the other day. It was sitting in a tree, busily staring off into the distance while I was busy traveling along Hwy 84 along the Columbia Gorge. Seeing a bald eagle while at work? Cool. 

Lately, it has been the Snow Geese in the rice fields. Other times, I spot crows picking at squished carrion at the edge of the interstate, hares and coyotes out in the fields, big-ass elk and pointy Pronghorn Antelope. Red Tail hawks grasping the top of road signs with their toes, looking just like unstable fat chickens. Turkey vultures; they may be majestic in the air, but when walking around on land they strongly resemble self-conscious teenagers.

And I get to see Ospreys! Imagine that.

Correctly identifying row crops at 58 miles an hour has its shortcomings, though I don't really have time to pull over to better inspect. Potato, alfalfa, wheat, chickpea fields and apple groves in Washington. Berry canes, blueberries, hazelnut trees, hops and grass seed in Oregon. Almond, walnut, pistachio, grape, pomegranate and bushy olive plantations in California. (More newly-planted olives, lately. Something about big investors from Spain) Vineyards everywhere. Wineries everywhere, all with French names, most with open tasting rooms and haughty aspirations. ("Vin de Chateau Walla Walla")

I ponder why there are full grown, bearing pistachio trees growing along the freeway embankments, as if some trees escaped their orchard and jumped the fence to make a break for it. And why do yellow daisies only grow in straight lines along freeways (and seemingly, no place else)?

I drive by a lot of RV parks. The RV parks are filled, though it is still winter. They're not filled with people on vacation; they are the domiciles of the today's worker. Mobile Homes are pricey, but used motor homes and fifth wheels are affordable and are mopping up the temporary housing needs. Most RV parks that I see now rent by the month, are filled to capacity and it is clear that those folks are not on vacation. I see their white work trucks (always white) and wonder about their lives, glad that I am not them.

And I get to listen to all the NPR that I can stand. I drive around, leapfrogging from one NPR station to the next one in line. As I lose the signal from one, I fumble around on the left hand of the dial looking for the next one. It is kind of like Steve Inskeep and the overground railroad. I go from KCRW down in Los Angeles to Valley Public Radio to Capitol Public Radio to North State Public Radio to Jefferson Public Radio to KLCC in Eugene to Oregon Public Radio to Boise State Public Radio and so on. Each NPR affiliate is slightly different. Pledge drives, ad infinitum. When beyond the National Prius Radio listening areas, I either avoid the damn religious stations, play whatever CDs I have on hand or listen to podcasts. I devour podcasts, Freakanomics, Radiolab, Selected Shorts and This American Life being my favorites, and nobody is with me to tell me to "turn it down".

Each day can be a bit trying, except when everything works. When things are going reasonably well and I manage to find my way to the shipper's address on time, the rusty trailer tandems cooperate, I manage to get back out on the road in a reasonable time and even locate a clean restroom, life is good. The most important thing: I am steadily employed! And I doubt that I could ever put up with the old life again: commuting nearly an hour in each direction, working in a stifling office and going to pointless meetings run by jerks.

I am seeing too much and having too much fun. There is no turning back now.