365 Days and 200,000 Miles

Laredo, Texas

We have been hammer down for a whole year and a few miles short of 200,000 miles across America touching three of the four corners, Seattle, San Diego and Miami.  We’ve been to the northeastern corner of New Hampshire but not to Maine. We’ve seen snow and ice, skies the color of a bad bruises, rainstorms and hail, amazing sunrises and sunsets like paintings, blue skies and puffy white clouds and we’ve been paid for about 180,000 miles.

That’s trucking, working for 90 percent of what you’re due and that doesn’t include all the free work, sitting while waiting to be loaded or unloaded, hooking and unhooking, pre-trip inspections and post-trip inspections and keeping your log.

Last Thursday was the first anniversary of our first load, which we hooked in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and pulled to Owensboro, Kentucky, 435 paid miles away. Everyone says you’ll always remember your first load. I remember that we dragged the 40,000 pounds of scrap paper over the West Virginia mountains on I-64 to Georgia Pacific with me sliding from one end of the bunk to the other. I did not sleep a wink. It took us 24 hours to make the delivery. Greg had to stop after four hours of driving and find a space in a truck stop, which was almost impossible, they are full at that time of the night and neither of us could really back up. We were exhausted after the first load.

On May 21, our anniversary, we drove from Carlisle, 107 miles to Montoursville, Pennsylvania to a little workshop in the center of a residential area where four people made steel curtain rods for venetian blinds. We were loaded with 38,850 pounds laid vertically on the trailer floor, but only stacked two feet high – it was heavy – which we hauled to Brownsville, Texas on the Mexican border. We bobtailed, along the Rio Grande, but we couldn’t see it, 164 miles to Laredo, Texas, hooked 15,618 pounds of Whirlpool fridges and headed back to Carlisle. Roundtrip, four days and three hours including 14 hours of napping, mid-day at truck stops – now we know when it’s easy to get into a truck stop – that’s just under 4,000 paid miles. I still can’t believe we can do it.

Big change from the first week in training when I was in tears after pulling into the training yard after my first hour-long drive around Carlisle hauling a 48 foot training trailer filled with 30,000 pounds of concrete barriers afraid that the green lights would turn red and I would hit the brakes too hard and slide through the intersection. I was so relieved to be back in one piece without killing anyone, I burst into tears.

Training was tough, many nights we didn’t think we’d make it. Greg’s instructor took him into the office on Day Nine to talk with the chief poohbah. They couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t get the timing down on the shifting.

My good for nothing boyfriend when I was 15 was good for something, he taught me to double clutch and drive a stick, a three-on-the-tree in his 1963 Chevy Biscayne.

I kept telling Greg, if they kick us out after the first week, it will still have been worth it. We were a difficult case for the Schneider trainers, obviously well-educated, well-spoken, street-smart – a couple kept asking us why we were there, maybe secret Department of Transportation inspectors – but we have had no experience backing up a boat trailer or a tent trailer.

We couldn’t understand how much space the trailer needed to make a simple turn. They worked hard to get us out of that training school because we are a husband and wife team and they are valuable.

When I pulled out of Montoursville, I had two classic right-hand buttonhook turns. I drove the tractor and trailer to the opposite corner across the intersection to give my trailer enough space so it didn’t knock over the power pole sitting ON the corner and I probably turned too wide, but better wide than too close in this situation. These roads were not made for 53 foot trailers, they weren’t even made for big trucks.

They didn’t kick us out. Not only didn’t they kick us out, after one year, there are only four of us left. The first day of class we had 16. We lost two in the pre-work physical screen, then we lost the others in dribbles over the 14 day course, including one young guy they discovered could not drive a car, let alone a big truck but he had a wife and baby and was making $7.50 a hour. He needed a better job, I felt bad for him. Six of us graduated, five of us passed the Commercial Drivers test and only four of us are still driving truck or with Schneider, we think the other driver left for another company but we’re not sure.

One of the instructors, referring to me and Greg and a pharmaceutical sales guy from Ohio, who dropped out after nine days said, “Schneider told us this was a recession and I know it’s a recession when I start seeing people like you showing up at training.” 

He gets the funny line award.

We’re still surprised that once we passed the road test, they tossed us the keys to a $120,000 tractor and said don’t be late, don’t hit anything and we were on our own.

I asked Greg for his highlights of the first year are and he said: “We haven’t killed each other, we’re still married.”

The number one highlight for me has been the scenery. The number two highlight is getting a cheque automatically deposited in our bank account every Friday. We say: Guess what tomorrow is, it’s PayDay!!!.” I love being paid every week. Every time we arrive at a customer with a load, we have to enter an “arrived” code on the satellite Qualcomm and that’s the signal that we will be paid for the load. We say “ka-ching!!” and hit the send button.

We didn’t really notice spring last year, first spring had already sprung and second our eyes were glued to the front window and the mirrors. All we saw was traffic and it was a nightmare, cars everywhere, crazy drivers. The first time I drove through a big city about a week after we were out on our own I thought I’d turn blue from not breathing.

The crazy drivers are still around and they’re worse, fuel prices are lower so there are more on the road this year but spring is the best.

It’s amazing, watching life come back to the land. I said a few months ago and it’s true I feel close to nature doing this job. It unfolds in front of me every day. Spring is slow and drawn out over the latitudes and over the months. It comes in waves. It starts with the longer days by the end of January and the first clue is in Laredo, the soft, fuzzy yellow-green of spring outlining the trees then the blossoms in North Carolina, the deep green of early plantings in Arizona along the Mexican border, heavily irrigated. Week by week the blossoms move farther north, Tennessee, Virginia, finally into Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin.

The colors of spring are yellow, white, yellow-green, purple-pink and pink. Cherry blossoms, magnolia blossoms, wildflowers. Through Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky the trees leaning over the Interstate create a tunnel-effect of pink and purple blossoms. The yellow wildflowers in Arizona, the red poppies in Mississippi and Alabama. A carpet of green everywhere, places that we know will soon be brown in the summer heat. The cows happily munching on grass, oblivious to the fact they will be fattened on grain and sent to slaughter an unpleasant end.

We watch the calves and fouls and lambs in the fields so new their mammas are still licking them clean. We come back two weeks later and they are fattening before our eyes.

This week above Roanoke, Virginia, the first light in the sky is before 0500 Eastern.

We stopped in Parrot, Georgia in the middle of April, we were looking for a post office. There’s a million small town post offices until you need one and then you can’t find one. Greg was behind the wheel, on our way to Ocala, Florida.

Every small town he passed, we slowed and looked down the streets. Nothing. The sun was set
ting. It would get harder to see the buildings on the streets. As Greg slowed going into Parrot, he saw something that looked distinctly like a post office building. He turned off the road and sure enough, a post office, the size of a suburban two-car garage with a giant empty parking space right beside it. Made for us.

We climbed out of the truck. We were assaulted by the fragrance. It was, there’s no other word for it, perfume. My friend Kathleen is into scents and fragrances and perfumes and she talks about the top notes and the different scents in a fragrance, I always just nod my head, sounds good to me.

For the first time, I understood what she was talking about, the complexity of the fragrance in the air was too much to describe at first. It was sweet and spicy, uplifting but calming and yet exhilarating. I could smell sweet flowers and something spicy, mixed in with the aroma sweet grass. It was beautiful. I stood there with my nose in the air like the prairie dogs sunning themselves in Montana, sniffing and smiling and breathing deeply and sniffing and thinking what is that smell, it’s beautiful, it’s just beautiful.

Parrot itself is a one street town in various stages of rehabilitation. Drat, it was Wednesday, if we’d been there on a Thursday we could have sat down at Rick’s barbecue and enjoyed some authentic barbecued ribs and beef cooked slow in his open-air iron lung cooker, a fixture tucked among the brick buildings on the main street. The bank, with its tin ceiling and teller’s wicket is an art gallery. There is a curios and antique store called High Falutin’. The sidewalk in front of the stores is a boardwalk, two steps up from the street. It had all the hallmarks of a town built in the late 1800s. Flower baskets hung from the awning over the boardwalk, red and white, but the only ones I knew were snap dragons.

The scene, intriguing enough, the sun setting, the sky at that amazing cobalt color before it turns completely dark, Greg went back to the truck for his camera.

That’s what I love about this job, we spent a pleasant half hour wandering through this little town, a movie set, really, and then we were on our way. We’d never go to Parrot, Georgia on a holiday, we’d never have another reason to drive through there, but the truck takes us by little bits of history and heaven every week.

Eight days later we’re in Seattle, Washington our home away from home, the Pacific Northwest. We delivered a load from Chicago, better know as the oops-we-ran-out-of-fuel-on-the-fuel-optimizer voyage. We arrived late Thursday night and we didn’t have a load until early Saturday, all day in Seattle. Yahoo! We rented a car and headed into the city to Pikes Place market. Every time we’re in Seattle the weather is fantastic. The sky was blue, clouds, but no rain, lots of sun. We spent $60 on fruit and vegetables in the market, topped off with a $60 dinner of dungeness crab watching the sailboats tack across the harbor, jibbing and luffing. The market had the first tree-ripe white peaches from California just the way I like them, smooth, wet flesh and sweet, dark red cherries, the flavor explodes in your mouth, we tried Jazz apples and discovered the food find of the year – drum roll please – real vegetables chips.

Jansen Farms in Portland, Oregon dehydrates slices of butternut squash, sweet potato, taro, carrots and whole green beans, flash fries them and lightly seasons with sea salt. Fantastic is a poor word to describe these chips. Incredible. We have rice chips and soy chips as afternoon snacks and I put them in coffee filters inside a bowl so I don’t have to wash the bowl and even the good brands leave a little grease in the filters. The filters were bone dry after being filled twice with the vegetables chips. They tasted like their vegetables, they were crisp and crunchy and not too salty. We should have bought more. I don’t even know how much the bag cost. I tried the sample and said I’ll take one! We have to go back to Seattle and get more. Greg is sitting next to me at the Operating Center asking me what I’m writing about.

“I should have taken a picture of them.”

Bad news about Seattle, though, Schneider closed the Auburn drop lot. It had a shower, it was two miles away from the Hertz Rental Car office and an Albertsons, which has yummy cinnamon twists. We’ll probably have to drop the truck at the Sumner lot now, which is in the center of the Intermodal container yards. No shower, only an outhouse, nothing around.

I have another drive to add to my top 10 drives around America – Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on I-81 to Milton on I-80, traveling north on PA3 22 to US 11/US 15 to PA 147 and I-180. I love knowing the numbers of all the roads.

The road is along the Susquehanna River. Goregous. Out of the winding river, filled with rapids, and fishermen in little boats, a wall of trees rises. It is lush. Deep green, trees packed together so tightly you might think there was no mountain behind them. The road is pleasantly windy. Which is another cool thing about the trucks, driving them is a cross between driving a sports car and riding a horse. Driving a sports car because you hold the wheel at nine o’clock and three o’clock and lean into all the curves because the tractor and trailer are 13 feet six inches high, but all the weight is above my elbows, so it always feels a little like it will tip over and it could very well tip over and they do tip over if taking a corner too fast, lean into it to judge the weight and speed.

It’s like riding a horse because you sit way up in this big chair, straight up, not leaning like in a car, especially when passing another truck – after a year I still find myself leaning forward, clutching the wheel, urging my steed on, faster, faster, knowing that no matter how I whip the best, 66 mph is the top speed.

The seat sits on air ride suspension so it swings forward and backward and side to side just alike a horse, sometimes like a sailboat, but mostly like a horse.

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