08 November 2015

Days of Heaven

 Morning at the truck stop at Casa Grande, AZ

"Livin' on the road, my friend, will keep you free and lean"--Townes van Zandt

Snowfall in northern Utah, Interstate 84

Along the Hood River gorge, Oregon

A storm cloud on the high plains. Rawlins, Wyoming

On Interstate 70 west of Denver, CO coming down slowly in slush and snow from 10,000 feet. At the base of the pass on the roadside was a turned over Fed Ex double, the tractor on its side, its trailers torn open, packages strewn about the ditch. 

Interstate 70, Utah

Burning the fields after the harvest north of Sacramento, CA on Interstate 5

Pass on the right for suicide

This intrepid beast hopped up into my cab at French Camp, CA

Teams of grackles and sparrows come each morning to feed on the dead insects caught in my grill

M'laiksini Yaina the Indians of the Klamath call it. The mountain of steep sides. Border of California and Oregon. 

09 October 2015

On The Road

The Driver at Crowley Lake

Peterbilt at Santa Nella, California

Roadside provider of showers and parking

Dawn in the Eastern Sierra Nevada

Quixote's monsters along I-10 near Palm Springs, California

Joshua Tree

Snow in the high mountains above Deadman Pass

15 September 2015


This ice-less cooler runs off my truck battery with a 12 volt plug. It is 40 quarts in volume and keeps things very cold. The radishes, strawberries, plums and peach were grown at Rossi Farms in Oregon, family operated since 1880. Beneath are cheeses, cold cuts, milk, hummus, yogurt and water.

Ketchup, Ammonia, Lizards and Oranges

I. Ketchup

It was 4 am when the light turned from red to green beside the door. The lumpers were finished offloading the trailer. I went to shipping and receiving for my paperwork. The old woman pushed a yellow paper across the counter.

"There was cargo damaged that you'll need to sign for. Two cases of ketchup."

I pulled the truck forward from the door and walked back and looked inside the trailer. There were two cardboard boxes. One was crushed. The other was stained and wet and stunk of ketchup. I thought to throw them in the trash and drive to my next stop, but I remembered it was necessary to report cargo claims to the high command.

The woman at high command in Green Bay, Wisconsin told me to put the two cases in my cab and I would be instructed later on what to do with them.

I wrapped the wet case in paper towel and lifted it out. It weighed at least forty pounds. I put it on the floor on the passenger side. I set the crushed case on top of it.

II. Ammonia

The cab stunk of ketchup. The damaged boxes contained thousands of Burger King ketchup packets.

I pulled in to some sort of chemical plant for my pickup. There were large silver tanks with steel hoses and the air was thick with ammonia. I got out and went inside shipping and receiving for instructions.

I was to wear at all times a hard hat, a respirator, goggles and thick leather gloves. Even when I was driving.

Despite the protection the ammonia stung at my eyes and throat. I drove to the back of the plant where a man said he would spot for me on a blind back around a building and into a warehouse. There was limited room to swing the cab around. No driver had tried it yet with a big sleeper cab, he said.

Wearing the hardhat and gloves and goggles and the respirator made for a very awkward back but after a few pullups I put it into the warehouse. They loaded the trailer with 43,000 lbs of urea on wrapped pallets.

III. Lizards

Vanco was the nearest Cat Scale. It was still early. The sun had just come up. 

Stockton, California is a nasty town and the Vanco truck stop is the nastiest of nasty truck stops. I pulled onto the scale and pressed the call button. Before the attendant answered a pair of lot lizards, a black and a white one, came up to my door.

"You looking for company, daddy?"

"Naw, momma. I just saw my old lady. I just got back on the road."

IV. Oranges

I followed the computer navigation past where I should have turned. In my mirror behind me I saw the trucks parked at a building. Then the pavement narrowed to a single track and went up a steep hill through the orchards. I was looking for anywhere to turn around. The pavement crumbled and turned to dirt. At the top of the hill the dirt road ended at a chainlink fence.

What to do now, I thought.

This dirt area at the hilltop was wider than the road I had come up on, but it was not wide enough. Perhaps I could drive into the orchard down through one of the rows of trees and deep enough that I can back the trailer out and cutting it hard, swing the cab around.

I turned slowly into the orchard between the trees. The truck tore oranges from the trees on both sides and the branches scraped down the trailer. This had to be done, I told myself. There is no other way.

I pulled the entire truck into the orchard and stopped and in reverse started to slightly angle the trailer back out, tearing oranges from the trees and driving over them. I had the windows down and it now smelled wonderfully of citrus. The citrus smell overpowered the smell of the ketchup.

I made many pullups and was able to slowly angle the trailer back onto the dirt road so I could swing the cab around. I left deep tire ruts in the row of trees and crushed oranges and branches. It took me a half hour but I got out of the orchard.

V. Ketchup (Redux)

I dropped the empty in Sacramento and picked up the relay. It was 29,045 lbs. according to the truck computer. Anything under 30,000 lbs we were told it is not necessary to scale.

But after I coupled up and pulled away the load felt heavy.

There was a non-certified scale on site and I ran over it and wrote down the weights on each of the axles. I didn't trust the scale but the load scaled out legal. Still, something didn't feel right.

Sixty miles later I passed the first weigh station on I-5 and it was closed. I thought of the axle weight numbers I had written down. I realized they added up to over 76,000 lbs. I was pulling a lot more than 29,000 lbs. I pulled the paperwork out and saw there was a second page I hadn't looked at. An additional 11,000 lbs had been added to the trailer.

The load was over 42,000 lbs. I needed to scale this thing immediately before I hit another weigh station.

My navigation said the nearest Cat Scale was 40 miles away. Fortunately, the nearest weigh station was 20 miles after that. Still, if the load could not be made legal I was over 100 miles from where I picked it up. High command would not be pleased.

I scaled it at the truck stop and went in for the ticket.

There was 34,000 lbs exactly on the drive axles. I knew the law stated it had to be under 34,000 but I couldn't remember if it was legal at exactly that number. Nobody at the truck stop seemed to know either.

The tandems were already all the way forward so the only way to move weight off the drive axles was by pushing the fifth wheel the one remaining notch forward. But this would have the effect of moving 350 lbs off the drive axles and putting me about 50 lbs over the steer axle 12,000 lbs limit.

I would need to cut at least 50lbs of weight from the cab. The only thing to do would be to jettison the ketchup. That would bring my steer axle weight back below 12,000. The ketchup would have to go. The high command would have to understand. 

I lifted out each of the boxes and set them beside a dumpster.

I pulled back onto the scale for the re-weigh and went inside for the ticket. 

It was a success. By jettisoning the ketchup I was now legal by 40 lbs. on the steer axle.

07 September 2015

Backing Up

You can always tell a new driver when he starts to back up. He'll often get the set up wrong. He'll not get the trailer angled enough to get it into the space. Or he won't pull forward enough to give himself room to jerk the trailer around. Then when he starts the back he'll not help himself out by making good pull-ups and cutting down his angle. Every time he pulls up and turns the wheel he finds himself back in the same problem with the trailer too far to one side or the other. Then he'll get frustrated and start turning the wheel the wrong way. That's about the time the new guy goes and hits something. But if he's smart he'll stop and get out and look at his situation and try to relax a little. Maybe walk around the truck once. Accidents happen when you get the truck moving without a plan. 

Nobody was born knowing how to back 53 foot trailers, but at the truck stops you'll sometimes see experienced drivers who gather to watch and snicker at the new guy. The spaces between trucks and trailers can be very tight, much tighter than anything they put you through in trucking school. Most guys at truck stops are just watching to make sure their truck doesn't get hit. My instructor at school told me he was once awakened in the night by a naked fat man running through the truck stop yelling. The naked fat man had been asleep in his cab and was awakened when the truck beside him pulled out, cut the turn too hard, and dragged off the front bumper of his tractor. 

At CDL school and the Schneider Training Academy they had you back up between lines of orange cones or between trailers set far apart. They taught you tricks to make the backs easy. Markings to look for on the trailer that would mean you were lined up or to follow the tire tracks in the dirt. None of these tricks work outside the practice yard. I have mostly learned to back on my own and by watching others.

I observed a very interesting back a few nights ago. I was in my cab waiting on the lumpers to finish unloading my trailer when a very clean white truck pulled past me and set up to back into one of the doors. The cab window rolled down and I saw an Arab wearing a white kufi. The Arab opened the cab door and stepped out onto the top step. The Arab wore white linen trousers and a white linen tunic and had on white slippers. He stood on the step and looked back behind him at the trailer and the space he was to back into. On a headset he wore over his kufi he was jabbering so loudly in Arabic that I heard him over the roar of the idling trucks. His entire outfit was a dazzling white and, impressively, without a spot of dirt.

The Arab held onto the opened cab door with one hand and with one foot on the step, the other foot on the clutch, his hand back behind him on the wheel, he stood in the opened cab doorway and began to back the trailer towards the spot, all while continuing to yell in Arabic. I had once seen a guy back with the driver's door open which I figured gave more of a sight line of the trailer than simply using the mirror or looking out the window, but I had never seen anyone back while hanging halfway out of the cab. 

The Arab didn't make the back on his first attempt. But he didn't get back inside the cab to shift into first and do his pullup either. He pulled forward while still standing halfway outside the cab. It took him a couple of pullups and then the Arab got it in. Though I didn't learn anything from this demonstration of backing, it was most entertaining to watch.

02 September 2015


Truck stop exit 106 on I-10 Cabazon, CA

The creation of the Cabazon dinosaurs began in the 1960s by Knott's Berry Farm sculptor and portrait artist Claude K. Bell (1897–1988) to attract customers to his Wheel Inn Cafe, which opened in 1958 and is now closed. Dinny, the first of the Cabazon dinosaurs, was started in 1964 and created over a span of eleven years. Bell created Dinny out of spare material salvaged from the construction of nearby Interstate 10 at a cost of $300,000. The biomorphic building that was to become Dinny was first erected as steel framework over which an expanded metal grid was formed in the shape of a dinosaur. All of it was then covered with coats of shotcrete (spray concrete). Bell was quoted in 1970 as saying the 45-foot (14 m) high, 150-foot (46 m) long Dinny was "the first dinosaur in history, so far as I know, to be used as a building." His original vision for Dinny was for the dinosaur's eyes to glow and mouth to spit fire at night, predicting, "It'll scare the dickens out of a lot of people driving up over the pass." These two features, however, were not added. With the help of ironworker Gerald Hufstetler, Bell worked on the project independently; no construction companies or contractors were involved in the fabrication. The task of painting Dinny was completed by a friend of Bell's in exchange for one dollar and a case of Dr Pepper. A second dinosaur, Mr. Rex, was constructed near Dinny in 1981. Originally, a giant slide was installed in Rex's tail; it was later filled in with concrete making the slide unusable. A third woolly mammoth sculpture and a prehistoric garden were drafted, but never completed due to Bell's death in 1988. (Wikipedia)


T. Rex

Wheel Inn Restaurant, closed

A shame to have missed out on visiting this national treasure when it was open.

 The truck stop with Claude's passing is now very much abandoned.

27 August 2015

Art History

South of Roseburg the hills became mountains. In the valleys the smoke from the forest fires burning across Oregon was thickest. I turned the A/C to internally circulate the air but the visibility, even though it was afternoon, was limited. I was loaded with nearly 44,000 lbs and I downshifted into 7th to take the first of the summits. Then down, in a steep descent in 9th gear, rpms high, running the Jake on high, and then slowly up a second 2000 foot summit. After Grant's Pass I began the even slower climb up the Siskiyou to the highest elevation on Interstate 5.

I was in 6th gear now and had pulled onto the widened shoulder to allow the unloaded trucks to blow by me. I was high enough that the smoke from the fires had lessened. One driver had told me you can look out your window as you ascend and see the snails passing you. I turned on the audiobook recording of Giorgio Vasari's The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. I had found it on a website offering free downloads of classic, out of copyright texts of which anyone could make a recording and upload it.

The reader was an English woman with a gentle voice. The road steepened and I shifted into 5th and then back into 6th. A sign indicated I was nearly at the summit and that trucks were required to pull over and perform a brake check. But there was something wrong with this English woman's voice.

I pulled over and stopped in the line of trucks at the top and did my leak test, a pump down of the air brakes to check for the warning buzzer and that both the tractor protection valve and parking brake knobs popped at 25psi. As I waited for the air tanks to refill I realized the English woman had a speech problem.

"Cimabue twained in Fwowence and he was, in one sense, the pwincipal cause of the wenewal of painting..."

With the air tanks filled I started down the summit. A sign indicated the different gears in which trucks should take the descent given their weight. I started down in 8th with the Jake on high.

"Aftwa a time in Wome, he painted the Cwucifixion for the Fwowentine chuwch at Santa Cwoce..."

I felt the truck taking off on me and pressed the brake gently before I rounded a corner. I glanced in the mirror at the trailer, not wanting to see it begin to swing around. I had heard the stories of trucks braking too hard and the momentum of the trailer continuing on, the driver watching, horrified, as his trailer moved past him in the cab, jack-knifing the truck and dragging the cab down the mountain. That was how trucks ended up facing the wrong way on the road. 

"the bwead as the body of ouw Woord Jesus Chwise..."

I was concerned too with taking the steep turns too quickly and setting off the stability controls. All Schneider trucks were outfitted with a computer to report unsafe maneuvers for which drivers were immediately called and reprimanded. I had no interest in taking a call from Mitch Neemers.

"the powtwait of the Bavawian and in like mannuh the miwacles of Wanniewi..."

I passed the first of the truck runaway ramps. These were the long, thickly sanded paths off the roadside intended to slow trucks that had blown out their air brakes, had their brakes fail, or overheated their brakes from excessive use. You ended up in one of those and you would never drive again, if you lived.

"a mwavelous wesembwance to a chwoiw of sinwers..."

It was very steep now and I was braking the truck at 50mph to bring it back to 45mph using a practice called "brake snubbing." This application of the brakes to slow the truck 5mph at a time, watching the truck accelerate back to the speed you first applied the brake, and then re-braking the truck to slow that same 5mph increment, is intended to save your brakes from overheating.

"the fact he painted evewything in fwesco, nevew wepainting anything..."

I was still looking in my mirror for that trail of black smoke that told me my brakes were done and I should look for the next runaway truck ramp.

"Pietwo made the blessed buwial on a sawcophagus made to look like mawble..."

My Rand McNally announced I crossed the state border and entered California. The road began to level out and I upshifted into 9th. Then into 10th. I had descended from the Siskiyou Summit.

"how the wetouching of fwescos aftwew causes injuwey--"

I reached over and shut the English woman off. I had heard enough of Giogwio Vasawi for today.

Interstate 8

After Yuma, Arizona Interstate 8 crossed the desert along the border with Baja, Mexico.  Then the highway cut through a long field of dunes called the Algodones. The winds blew the dune sand across the highway and it seemed the road would be retaken by the desert.

Crossing into California, Interstate 8 went up into the mountains and I stopped for the night at the Golden Acorn Casino. The casino was built in 2001 by what remained of the once mighty Kumeyaay tribe. For many miles there had been signs advertising the casino's $7.77 prime rib and its many gaming merits, but most important were the signs welcoming truck drivers and promising parking.

I parked in the large truck lot behind the casino and went inside to the restaurant and ordered the $7.77 prime rib special and a cold beer. At the tables were young Mexican families and old obese gringo couples who traveled on motorized carts sucking oxygen through tubes. 

Inspired by the prime rib and a second pint of beer I was feeling both virtuous and lucky. I went to a slot machine, fed into it a $5 bill, pulled, and won $6. I cashed out, receiving a printed card for $11 and found a casino attendant who exchanged the card for cash and I returned to my truck, intending to safeguard my virtue and conserve whatever luck might remain.

In the morning I continued west towards San Diego. The highway passed through mountains made of giant piled boulders. These great boulder piles were the result of the erosion of granitic bedrock and rose up high from the desert scrub.  

Then the I-8 came down from the mountains and into San Diego. I had a live unload at the Convention Center and followed the navigation through rush hour traffic into the center of the city. The computer pronounced me "arrived" along the harbor in front of the convention center. I didn't see any signs for trucks. I must not turn somewhere and get this thing stuck, I thought. I figured the unloads must happen behind the building and I continued until I found a street that went back behind it. There I saw the other trucks and knew I was correct. 

The docks were in a covered area inside the building with very little room to maneuver the truck. I had to cut the trailer hard but be very careful not to swing the front end out and hit something.  It was my most difficult backing yet and I took a long time to get it in. I was either cutting it too hard or not enough, or I was going to run the front end into the parked forklifts and cases of water along the wall.  When I finally got it in I was sweating heavily. The unload lasted a couple of hours.

20 August 2015

Potato Chips

Temple at St. George, UT
In Bear River, Utah I drove into a dust storm. The wind blew down from the mountains across the valley and I felt the trailer sway with the gusts and pull the tractor with it. It was dark from the windblown dust in the air and I slowed down. On the bridges I thought the wind might take me over. I was carrying a trailer full of potato chips and headed to Bakersfield, CA. 

My truck computer navigation indicated "non freight related" stops in St. George, UT; Las Vegas and Barstow. It was explained to me that I would need to follow the stops directed in order to avoid the higher mountain passes that would explode the bags of chips. I wasn't sure exactly what it meant for me coming into St. George but instead of stopping at a truck stop I exited I-5 and began to follow the truck computer directions into the city. Perhaps I had to verify on the computer that I had stopped at the St. George final destination indicated by the computer. Perhaps there was something there. I did not know where the computer was taking me.
I knew something was wrong on the first big sweeping buttonhook turn I did at the corner of a gas station onto a narrow side street. I had to go out deep and wide and cut it back hard. Then I had to nail another buttonhook and up a hill I entered a subdivision. This was wrong, all wrong, I thought. I was taking this truck somewhere it shouldn't. I never should have followed the computer navigation.
The navigation pronounced me "Arrived" a few blocks later. I was in the middle of a subdivision of matching brown houses on a hill overlooking the southern part of St. George.
I would have to find a way out of this myself. I had seen a sign for I-5 back behind me, but I didn't dare turn onto a little side street to turn around.
In the front yard of one of the houses was a wedding party. They were Mexicans. Two older men in dark suits stood at a parked car and watched me approach.
"Caballeros, gentlemen. Perdoneme. Many pardons. I have a great need for assistance."
"Que necessita usted?"
"La autopista I-5. But it is clear this great beast cannot be turned around easily."
"Si, claro. Yes. Such is clear." These gentlemen understood the magnitude of the situation.
"We do not come from here, but I will consult the map in my car," said the one.
He had a map of the city. He studied it and then showed me that by staying on this street through the subdivision I would pass down the hill and back to a larger street that would take me back to I-5. I had only to avoid the smaller streets. I thanked the gentlemen and congratulated them on this wedding day and we wished each other much luck and I continued through the subdivision which was no doubt illegal for a big rig to pass through and then found the larger street indicated on the map and I was back onto I-5.
I left St. George in darkness the following morning. There was lightning in the distance. The road dropped steeply. I was dropping into the Virgin River Gorge a sign indicated. Lightning cracked across the gorge and illuminated the stone walls. I had the Jake on high and was braking hard. The truck wanted to take off on me. When the thunder sounded I thought I was hearing the bags of potato chips exploding. Then I hit a construction area. The road went to a narrow one lane with concrete mafia blocks set right up against the white lines on either side. The lightning lit up the road and it required great concentration not to clip the concrete blocks as the road swung down steeply to the river. I came up out of the gorge and into Arizona at dawn. I was already exhausted. I wondered about the potato chips.

13 August 2015

Trucker Tools

In my first days driving I watched my DOT hours of service clock counting down. I watched the countdown of time and wondered where I could stop and park this big beast. I had been advised to stop before dark as the truck stops fill up quickly around that time and only the most difficult spots, requiring monstrous feats of backing, would be available. But where to stop? It was not until I purchased this trusted guide to truck stops and rest areas along the interstate system that I could plan where and when to end my day. I could also plan for refueling and when to take my DOT mandated 30 minute break. I keep this guide within reach on the passenger seat and refer to it throughout the day. While my navigation system can also be keyed in for truck stops, it can be dangerous to drive and attempt to key in destinations on the computer. 

Rand McNally Trucker GPS 5inch; Indispensible for when my truck Qualcomm goes down which happens every day. 

Scenes from the Road

Outside Salt Lake City, UT

Trip back into the Mojave Desert, CA

Mojave Desert at high altitude

In the California mountains downshift into 8th or sometimes 7th gear on steep downgrades, depending upon how much you're hauling, and run the Jake Brake on high. Don't do that and you'll burn up your brakes and be hoping for the nearest truck ramp, packed with a light loose sand and hopefully long enough and steep enough to bring you to a stop. 

Spent a restful night here with the locals. Charming place.

11 August 2015

Shower Power

As I had expected the lumpers finished the live unload after 9:30pm. Late in the afternoon I had refueled at the Pilot a few miles away and even at that time the lot had filled with trucks. But I had noticed a road behind the truck stop on which trucks were parked and a quarter mile section which trucks were not parked on due to them being unable to make the turn. I saw, however, that I could take a different road and access that quarter mile for parking and I remembered this as I drove in the night back to the truck stop. 

For Professional Drivers Only

Sure enough the lot was jammed with trucks. I passed through and then taking the road I had marked out that afternoon I then found on the quarter mile section of road one spot big enough for my truck. The rest of the road behind the truck stop was lined with trucks. My planning during the afternoon had worked out for me. I pulled onto the gravel shoulder and cleared my trailer and hit the sleeper. 

Proof of a great achievement in hygiene and the prevention of disease

I lay in bed thinking about the achievement of that afternoon. I had swiped my Pilot Professional Driver Loyalty Card and purchased 130 gallons of fuel bringing me to more than 500 gallons purchased at Pilot during the month. This, I understood, gave me Shower Power. I had not showered in many days and was excited by the thought of the hot shower I would take tomorrow. I fell asleep thinking of that delicacy of the over the road trucker. 

A computer voice also announces: "Professional Driver Number ___ your shower is now ready"

In the morning I started a pot on the coffee machine and walked to the Pilot and went inside and inquired if I had actually achieved Shower Power. Indeed I had achieved it, the Mexican lady said. And there were showers available. She swiped my Pilot card and then I went to my shower room and keyed in the password and went inside. The shower room was very clean with tan stone walls, a toilet, a sink, and fresh towels. With Shower Power I would now be granted a free shower every day for a month. It was a wonderful thing to have achieved. I could be as clean now as I wanted to be. Life on the road was opening up for me. 

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