I had a dream last week that I was driving a semi-truck. In the dream I had just topped a steep pass to start my descent when I realized that I didn’t know the first thing about semis and that I was probably doomed.
I forgot all about the dream until a few days later, when I received an email from the American Trucking Association, the subject line of which read: “Have you ever taken a ride in a big rig?”
It seemed providential. If not for the dream, I might not even have opened the email. Under the circumstances, how could I resist?
And that’s how I ended up in the cab of big Mack truck Monday afternoon, in the capable hands of Steve Fields, who drives for Wal-Mart out of Bedford, Pa.
He was part of a team of drivers involved in the trucking association’s National Share the Road Highway Safety Program, co-sponsored locally by the Montana Trucking Association and Diversified Transfer and Storage on Monad Road, where I hooked up with Fields.
I hadn’t been in a big rig since my hitchhiking days decades ago, when a trucker might give you a ride just to have somebody to talk to, and the drivers in question were generally greasy, pot-bellied, scale-dodging, pill-popping redneck hippies.
Even allowing for the ATA’s natural desire to find respectable representatives, I have to say I was impressed with Fields. He was sharp as a whip, relatively fit and a good talker. He even had a nice tan!
He said his father was a trucker, as are his two brothers. Fields drove for a construction company for many years, had his own rig for some years after that and has been driving for Wal-Mart for just shy of 15 years. He’s been on the road for 35 years and turns 54 in July. After all those years, he has one of the best perks a truck driver could ask for.
“I do a set run where I go home every night,” he said.
The ATA flew him into Billings on Sunday and he’d never been to Montana before. In fact, Montana was the only state in the Lower 48 in which he’d never driven a truck—until taking me for a quick spin from Monad Road to the Flying J Truck Stop in Lockwood and back. I felt strangely honored.
Earlier Monday, Fields and the other drivers met with a large group of high school students taking driver’s ed this summer, and they had more meetings scheduled with students on Tuesday and Wednesday, plus the media ride-alongs in the afternoons.
Their main message, Fields said, was that everybody needs to be more courteous on the road, and that people need to know that trucks need more space—a lot more space—than passenger vehicles.
“Most people just don’t understand how much room a truck needs to stop and to maneuver,” he said.
But the simpler message is that everyone needs to slow down and chill out, he said.
“I never could understand why people couldn’t understand that everybody’s trying to get somewhere.”
He knows a thing or two about courteous driving, having put in 3 million miles without being in an accident that he caused.
“I’ve never had a chargeable accident through today,” was how he put it. “I’ve been involved in a few, but it’s never been my fault.”
The Mack truck provided by the ATA was, he said, “as nice as it gets,” with a refrigerator and microwave and roomy bedroom in the rear of the cab, with one bed below and a drop-down bunk above that.
It also has cruise control that monitors the speed of the vehicle in front of the truck, adjusting the speed to keep a safe distance back. Then there is the miniature radar on the driver’s side, which beeps and flashes red when there’s a vehicle in the truck’s blind spot.
The only thing the truck didn’t have, which was disappointing, was a stick shift, the proper operation of which used to be the soul of the truck driver’s craft. This Mack had an auto-shift transmission that worked its way through 12 gears by means of an electric cylinder.
Or something like that. I am congenitally unable to understand all things mechanical. The upshot, though, as Fields said, was that the auto-shift transmission “makes you sound really good because you don’t grind the gears.”
Since he had spent the morning with high school kids, I asked him about cell phones, expecting a thundering denunciation of those devices. He was surprisingly calm on the subject.
“The truth is, we had accidents before cell phones and we’ll have accidents after they’re gone,” he said, adding that the No. 1 distraction is still another passenger. But he did acknowledge that texting while driving is just plain stupid.
“My problem is the kids, the younger generation, really believe they can do it,” he said. “That’s the problem, because they can’t.”
I also asked him if he’d ever had occasion to use a runaway truck ramp. Every time I drive past the ramp on the east side of the I-90 divide near Butte, I wonder what it would be like to slam into deep gravel on one of those steep ramps. Fields had never used one, but he knew all about them.
“It’ll take the front axle right out from under the truck,” he said. “It’s gonna be a stop, but it’s gonna be an abrupt stop. You’re not just going to try it for something fun to do.”
The last thing I asked Fields was how he liked driving for Wal-Mart, after running his own rig for many years.
He said he did like owning his own truck and being his own boss, but using a Wal-Mart credit card was pretty sweet, too.
“Boy, pulling up to the fuel pump and not shelling out 5- or 600 bucks, that tickles me to death,” he said.”
This piece first appeared at Last Best News.