Tales of a Long Distance Trucker

Back in the fall of 2012 my unacceptable economic situation compelled me to embark on a new and challenging path.  Unemployed in Northern California’s Humboldt County, I decide to enroll in the local community college’s Commercial Driver’s License program.  With a CDL I plan to battle poverty while effectively maneuvering something weighing 80,000 lbs., and measuring 65 feet in length.  The “instruction” consists of driving around while being told to, “watch my trailer”.   After jumping through more hoops than a circus animal I accomplish my goal.  With Class A license in hand I begin mental preparation for entering the most regulated industry in the land.  Without any real experience, I knew I would have to enlist with a long haul trucking company and go on the road with a trainer for a least a month or so.  Luckily, my guide turns out to be extraordinary.  He’s an 18 year veteran owner operator, with more miles going backwards than I have going forwards.  After the necessary regiment I’m ready to go out on my own.  I wind up with Swift Transportation mostly because of the location of their closest terminal.  Swift is the world’s largest trucking company with about 23,000 trailers and 17,000 trucks.   Their reputation, like my trucking record, is average at best.   To their credit, they did hire and train me.  After a year of driving I have 100, 000 safe, accident, & citation free miles, and over 200 deliveries all 100% on time.   I did have a few close calls.

In June of 2013 I’m on the road with my own truck.  Fully loaded, the massively underpowered Volvo is giving me a top speed of about 35mph on some of the steeper hills.  This can really cut into your drive time.  All of which is already allocated for when the corporate “planners” send you on a load.  Technically, it is not a “forced dispatch”.  That is; you can turn down a trip, but it’s not recommended.  They don’t like it when you do that and once you’re committed there’s no turning back.  One of the problems with many of the “plans” is that they are based on optimum road, weather, & traffic conditions.  I had it out with them a number of times, having to tell some 25 year old Arizona State MBA  that, “If I left RIGHT NOW, driving a sports car, with no stopping, and no delays, I might make that deadline”.   If you legally have the hours to run it, and they can fit it into their equation, then they will run you like an animal.  In the log book, every minute of a truck driver’s life is accounted for.  The hours of service are complicated and on the surface appear to make a bit of sense.  In reality, the hours of service laws are the terms with which the trucking company can abuse you.  For example, let’s say I have a delivery scheduled for 7:30AM.   I’m parked at a truck stop about 30 minutes away from my final destination.  So I’m up and hitting it at 6:00AM.  I log my pre-trip (per company and DOT policy), make the drop, and everything is groovy.  It’s now 9:00AM, I’m empty, and waiting for my next load.  But what’s this?  The next load requires a pick-up at 10:00PM later this same day.  What’s more, after that it requires driving all night to make the next delivery on time.   Big problem.  Since my day started at 6:00AM, my 14 hour clock will have run out by 8:00PM.  In order to make this run I’m going to have to shut down at 9:00AM, take my 10 hour break, and make myself available to work at 7:00PM.   This will give me a fresh clock– i.e.; 11 hours of drive time, and a new 14 hours to do it in.   This is all possible and legal.  It’s also dangerous.  Let’s presume my sleep cycle has been on the night-time for a week or so and I’m well rested from the previous nights 10 hour break.  Its 9:00AM, I’ve been up for 3 hours, and I just drank two cups of coffee.  How the hell am I going to get any kind of quality sleep and be rested well enough for an all-night drive?  I’m a human being.  Like most of my race I perform tedious and time consuming tasks better when I’m fully rested.   This sort of thing happens all too often.   The bottom line being, if you’re trucking with a large company, any sort of regular sleep/work schedule is impossible.  Shipping happens all day and all night 365 days a year.  There isn’t anyone looking out for your wellbeing.

A log violation is a serious matter.  The trucking company is responsible for monitoring their drivers’ logs.  If the Federal Motor Carrier Assoc. gets involved, the fines start at about $1,000.  If you’re driving or on duty 1 minute over your 11 hours’ drive time, or your 14 hours on duty time you will be reprimanded. Nowadays the logs are electronic, so there is no room for faking it.  If the truck is moving it records it.  On an almost daily basis every trucker is faced with the stress of finding a place to park while maximizing the drive time.   If your day is winding down and you’re running out of time, you’d better have a place to park.   So, go to a truck stop you say, right?   Sure, but it’d better be before about 8:00PM, or you won’t find a spot.  They start filling up about 5:30PM, and depending on the schedule that might not be possible.  To say that there is a parking problem in trucking is an understatement.  On any given day there aren’t enough spaces for the number of trucks on the road.  Places like the San Francisco Bay area, Colorado, and especially Texas are notoriously bad for parking.  I drove around Dallas late one morning and into the afternoon trying to find a spot.   Don’t even try to get across a Kansas highway without a full clock.   There’s nary a shoulder on the side of the road to pull off on in the event of a breakdown or a urinalysis.  I didn’t get into New England at all, but I’m told that’s where parking is really impossible & I believe it.  You know those trucks you see parked on freeway ramps?  Those drivers ran out of time on their clock, and there was no room at the inn.  That sort of thing is illegal.  Technically the state trooper can and might give you a ticket.

In the 1950’s the Eisenhower administration started construction of our federally regulated freeway system.  In those days they were thinking they might need to transport troops and equipment, coast to coast, border to border.  This is also a huge step towards phasing out or at least diminishing rail transportation.  Why take a bite out of the railroad?  Two reasons: (1) If the railroads strike, then the Congress has to go into special session.  And we all know those guys are too busy working for corporate interests.  (2) Oil.  A tractor-trailer hauling freight gets maybe 9 miles per gallon at best.  Most semis are configured with two 100 gallon tanks.  With diesel costing an average of about $4.00 per gallon these days, we’re forking out at least $500 every time we fill up.  Those lines to the pump are always full too; 2-3 trucks deep every time you pull in.  All the usual suspects stand to make some serious bank when all this shipping gets said and done.  This is also why diesel fuel costs as much or more than gasoline while requiring a fraction of the refining cost in comparison.   I think it has something to do with a consumer base economy, supply/demand, and what’s considered a living wage.  To put it another way, EVERYTHING you purchase new; be it food, fuel, furniture, or whatever; at some point took a ride on a truck.  A significant cost of anything nowadays is in the shipping.  Be it the raw materials or the finished product.  If the cost of goods were adjusted to reflect their actual value, eliminating all the bullshit the stuff goes through to get into our lives, we’d all have a lot more disposable income.  And nothing causes problems like disposable income.  Crunch the numbers.  Can you foresee the consequences if every man, woman and child had an extra $100 a month to burn?  The impact on the planets resources, infrastructure, and longevity is huge.  This is why corporations can rationalize such enormous profits while their workers are paid so little.   This is also why starting wage for a truck driver is .25 cents a mile.

I had 3 close calls I’ll never forget.  The first I’m driving West on the I70.  For the uninitiated that road from Denver to Grand Junction can be a real bitch.   This particular trip is a JIT load– Just in Time, which means, if you’re 1 minute late you don’t get paid.  I did the math and figured I could make it with about 2 hours to spare even with the massively underpowered Volvo losing so much time for me.  Anyways, just when I thought I was past the worst of it, I spot a sign warning me that up ahead there’s some downhill stuff happening.  It’s the sign with the truck pointed downwards on a triangle.   OK, I’ve seen these before.  These are sometimes useful.  When followed with a warning describing the severity of the grade, and a recommendation to select a lower gear, I’m always very compliant.  But for some reason I’m not seeing that.  OK, other times they put the exact same downward truck triangle sign preceding the most innocuous of hills.  So I spot this one, and I’m going downhill for a while.   Having difficulty keeping my speed under 65mph, I’m starting to get a little nervous.  Then I see a sign telling me that the steep grade will continue for another 10 miles, and I should “Stay in Lower Gear”.  Well hell, I’m in my highest gear.  This is bad.  Riding the brakes pretty hard, they start to emit their very distinctive burn odor.   Glancing in my mirrors I can’t detect any sign of flame.   This is good, but in my nose is definitely the unforgettable and unmistakable smell of burning brake pad.  Meanwhile my speed is still climbing.  Running options through my brain, cold sweat is gathering in the small of my back.  There are 3 possibilities:  (1) Use what’s left of the brakes to pull off to the side, stop, let the brakes cool, short shift it into 7th maybe 8th, and crawl down the rest at 35mph.  (2) Continue on in top gear, ride the brakes, cross fingers, and stay on the look-out for a runaway truck ramp, just in case.  Or (3) Look, up ahead it levels off for about 50 yards.  Brake down to 45mph and drop a gear.   If gear is missed (which is very possible under circumstances) see option (1).   Well; I grabbed the lower gear.  With brakes and psyche relieved, I make the bottom of the mountain and eventually Irwindale, CA, with 44,000 lbs. of bottled Coors.  On time.

Another close call occurred on the I80 Eastbound.  My day started early one December morning in Eureka, CA.  I’m just coming off some home time and not looking forward to the 4 hour drive over the HWY US299 to Redding and ultimately the terminal in Willows, CA.  The start of my day further thwarted with the possibility of snow and ice accumulation on the route ahead.  Well, after an 8 hour drive to work, the 299 being slow and treacherous, I arrived to find my load going from Red Bluff, CA to Reno, NV.  OK, no problem, I can do that.  Word at the terminal is the I80 is wide open all the way, although closed at Donners Pass earlier due to weather.  I made the pick-up and stopped in Corning for some steak and eggs.  That was about the only smart thing I did that day.  Later that evening I’m crawling up the mountain fully loaded only to find myself pulling over to put the chains on.  Yeah chains.  My day started at 5:00AM.  It’s now about 11:30PM and I’m figuring out for the first time how these damn things go on.  My trainer made it look so easy in the warm and sunny parking lot in Nogales, NM so many months before.  Insult to injury I’m only equipped with “doubles”.  I have about 4 times the chains necessary and they’re about 8 times harder to put on than “singles”.   Serves me right for not checking the chain bags more carefully.   The bored shop guy in Phoenix must have pulled one over on me.  Anyways, 2 hours later I get the chains on and get through the check point.  It’s all downhill from here.  Now they’re real clear about when and where you have to put these things on, but where and when you take them off is way sketchier.  Halfway to Truckee is where I hit a long stretch of dry pavement with no place to pull over.  I can barely keep my speed under 40 mph on account of the full load.  Sparks are flying everywhere and the ride is rougher than a camel’s hump.  Suddenly physics are too much, and the chains snap.   All four sets of doubles break simultaneously.   I’m on the curve right there about a ¼ mile from the state line.  A space appears between two guard rails and I needle the truck & trailer into the minimal wide-out.  Now the temperature is hovering around zero and I can barely move my fingers due to the aforementioned chain installation.  All the chains are all wrapped around my axles and lodged between my tires.  The mud flaps are bent, twisted, and discombobulated beyond recognition.  Most of the 18 wheels are immovable due to this catastrophe.  My plan was to wait for daylight, drop the trailer, and use the tractor to pull the mud flaps back making it moveable.  Not the sort of exercise I want to do in the dark on the side of a mountain, with a ½ mile drop right over there.   At that point I hadn’t yet assessed the severity of the chains all wound up between my drive tires.  Right about now a Caltrans truck pulls up with a large ogre of a man behind the wheel.  He gets out and produces a huge lead pipe, and bends the flaps back.  After that there is a call to a Highway Patrolman who has the bolt cutters.  This guy is so gun-ho about getting me off this mountain, he’s crawling around in the snow under the truck with the bolt cutters and no coat on.  Anyways, with the chains cut off and the mud flaps bent back, the cop yells me to get out of there.  At this point I’m not getting into a conversation about the whole hours of service thing/ log violation &etc.  And I sure as hell can’t stay parked here.   As the patrol car pulled away I catch a glimpse of its number.  In my log book, after my expired 14 hours, I reported that I broke down, repaired, and told to move by the CHP.  Normally in these situations a badge number and the officer’s name are required, but in this case the patrol car number sufficed.

The final most harrowing incident I’ll tell you about occurred in Washington on the I90.  I’m westbound just getting to the summit of Mt. Baker on a busy Saturday afternoon during ski season.   Generally, when one side of the mountain is good, the other side is awful.  The way up is fine, sunny, dry and no snow.  Then I made the turn through the tunnel after Hiyak.  Coming out the other side I’m forced to come to a stop on the huge banked corner designed for cars going about 70mph.  Directly in front of me the entire lane is backed up with about 50 trucks all waiting and negotiating getting into the chain installation area.  On my immediate left, the entire lane is jammed with 4-wheelers going about 30mph at 10 foot intervals.  As the corner coming out of the tunnel is blind, there’s no way I can pull out into the adjacent lane without a car or 2 getting under my trailer and made into a convertible.   I’m at a dead stop with a truck 5 feet in front of me on this incredibly steep angled curve.  The road is extra treacherous with an inch or two of slush covering another inch or 2 of hard packed snow.  It’s all slipperier than a snotty door handle.  So, I’m sitting there waiting for the guys in front to move, and I start to slide.  The whole rig; me, tractor, trailer, &etc., all start sliding slowly to our left into the moving traffic.  I slid about a foot or two when somewhere in the back of my mind, somewhere deep in all my preparation, all my research, all the books I read and YouTube videos I watched, something somewhere told me to put it in the lowest gear and ease the clutch out just enough so there’s tension on the wheels preventing the lateral movement.  I did this and it worked.  Right about now some idiot in some kind of uniform bangs on my passenger side window.  I role it down and yell, “I’M SLIDING!!!”  Dude responds, “Uh yeah, how’s it going?  You know you’re parked in a really bad spot.  Can you maybe get around this and go further down and put your chains on there?”  I didn’t know where to begin.  Thinking the air horn is good place to start, I’m fixin’ to hit it, when, just in time to abort the blast, the guy in front of me gets around the guy in front of him who’s now making some forward progress.  Pulling out I calmly tell uniform guy there really needs to be someone out here who can direct traffic.  I made the left lane, found a spot, and put my chains on.  Had I slid into that lane under those conditions it would have caused one of those 40 car pile-ups.  And it would have been all my fault.  It’s always the drivers fault.

Trucking is a great job when you’re roaring down a nice stretch of road with a completely reasonable deadline, and an empty bladder.  The part where the lifestyle gets awful is the waiting, the loading/unloading, the regulations, the scales, the hours of service, the wages, the diet, the lack of home time, searching for parking, searching for an empty trailer, all of that crap, make it needlessly difficult.  About three weeks in I hit a re-evaluation moment when I busted ass driving 8-9 hours to make a delivery on time.  Upon arrival I’m required to sign a document stating that I would “stay in my truck until unloaded, not ask to use a bathroom (they don’t have that), and not idle my truck, (it was about 100 degrees outside).  And here I thought they’d be happy to see me.   No matter how much you love driving and like the idea of being paid to be on the road, I can only recommend long haul trucking for those who enjoy the extra abusive, impossibly regulated and completely thankless.

Nick Sondy currently writes out of Fall City, WA and can be reached at NickSondy@gmail.com