Thursday, October 16, 2008

Closing ceremonies

I've lost count of how many times I've started this post and deleted it. Writing it has been much harder than actually walking away from the world of truck driving. This is the new battle, the recounting and the making sense of everything that happened.

I have not been behind the wheel of a big rig since turning in my keys to Werner, retreating back to civilian life in Portland, then going home to lick my wounds. I will probably never again get behind the wheel. But I will also never forget all these experiences, and have continued to write about them. This was the original goal, anyway - to write about life on the road. Initially I thought this would take the shape of a journalistic project, but that goal has morphed into something else. I'm not sure what yet, but I am slowly but surely writing and figuring it out.

The trucking life was not for me, but the taste of it that I did get gave me a profound respect for the men and women on the highways who are moving this country around day in and day out. You are all my heroes. I am especially grateful to those whose advice and encouragement kept me hanging on during the toughest times. (Decorina, Gigi, Aaron, Terry, Gabrielle, Jason, I'm talking to you. Thank you.)

I will keep this blog up as is, as an honest document for new drivers who want to know what it's really like to get started in this business. There was a lot of vitriol thrown around in the comment section of my last post; please refrain from such comments on this post or I will simply delete them.

If anyone wishes to contact me for any reason, please email theannakaplan(at)yahoo(dot)com. Some of the names listed above may be hearing from me soon, as I'd love to tell your stories.

Keep on truckin', as they say. Be safe out there. Vaya con Dios.


Friday, August 22, 2008

G is for Garbage

PORTLAND, OR - I've had so many crises of faith, so many emotional/mental/psychological blocks throughout the last few months. But what pushed me over the edge and made me turn my truck in and finally quit Werner was a physical issue.

Thursday morning I got an assignment to pick up a trailer full of scrap, mostly old pallets, and take it to a waste management facility 20 miles away. I groaned at the shortness of the run, but whatever. Go pick up the trailer, take it where it's supposed to go. Which turns out to be the city dump. The city dump does not usually get semi trucks, and they're not sure what to do with me, and they're not even sure they can take the specific kind of checks that trucking companies use to pay for services (in this case, the fees for dumping stuff into the landfill). So I sit at the dump for about four hours while they decide what to do with the checks, until they finally decide that yes, they'll take it. And they send me up.

Mind you, I'm at the city dump. There are no docks, no forklifts, no one to help me unload the stuff. I mean, I'm at THE DUMP, where garbage truck drivers back up to the edge and tip their trucks up so all the junk just falls out. I don't have that kind of mechanism on a dry van trailer. My dispatcher confirms that yes, I am supposed to unload it. Open up the trailer door and find that most of the pallets are oversized ones, huge and heavy. And there's a big steel platform in there, and I can't even lift one edge of it by myself. I drag one pallet out, and call my dispatcher to tell him that I am physically incapable of doing this work, and whoever heard of a long-haul driver being sent to the city dump to hand-unload a trailer full of trash, anyway?

His first question: "What, are you real small? You can't lift pallets?" It's not a question of my size, idiot, it's a question of this kind of work being completely beyond my job description, as well as a question of the trailer contents being too heavy to lift for any one person, no matter how big and buff. In a fit of rage, I shoved two more pallets off the trailer after getting off the phone, then went back into the cab and started making panicked phone calls to non-idiots, like my old trainer Dana, who suggested I call my dispatcher's supervisor, who in turn gave the same bullshit that my dispatcher did - sometimes these loads are necessary, I guess we'll have to send a guy on this load instead.

I didn't get to leave the dump until about 4pm, after spending about seven hours there. I wanted to drive straight to the terminal and turn in my truck, but thought I'd sleep on it first. I did. Then drove to the terminal first thing in the morning and turned it in. The response from the guys at the terminal: this is a ridiculous ordeal, why didn't Werner just contract a waste disposal company to do this? Because drivers, especially rookie drivers who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, are so much cheaper. I mean, I made about $40 that day, all in all. This shit is not worth it.

I'm spending the weekend with my Portland friends, who were thankfully willing to pick me up from the terminal and put me up for a few days. Then I will take the bus back to Cali and try to get my head together, figure out what I'm doing next. Maybe another trucking company, maybe not. Right now, there's a cup of sludge-thick Pacific NW coffee calling my name somewhere around here, and it holds more promise than anything that's happened over the past week.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Trying to get up that great big hill of hope

EUGENE, OR - Damn, it's been a seriously screwed up five days. My nerves are shot, yet I'm only 600 miles away from home.

Got back on the truck Thursday morning, picked up a trailer headed into the Bay Area, had to drive on a road where trucks were heavily "not advised" because of 10mph switchback turns and one-lane bridges, backed a trailer uphill and around a curve on a one-way street with cars on both sides in downtown San Francisco, sideswiped a pole and knocked my right-side mirrors off, got lost trying to get to Oakland to get that fixed, spent the night parked down the street by the Oakland Coliseum, woke up every time I heard footsteps or voices outside. At dawn I opened the curtains to a pale gray street and saw an old homeless man stumbling down the sidewalk draped in a dirty white sheet, like the last of the night's bad dreams succumbing to the sobriety of morning.

Drove up to the North Bay to get my next load, and when I got there found that one of my trailer tires was shredded. Spent five hours waiting for someone to come fix it. Delivered 30 miles away (which is bullshit - I am not supposed to be a local driver!), learned that my next load wasn't till morning. Learned that the Bay Area has basically no truck stops, which explains why Central Valley truck stops are always so packed (yo, Record peeps, I smell a story here), called the only truck-stop-ish place in the East Bay I could find, had them tell me they're closed for renovation but the cops don't bother trucks that park on the street next to the truck stop-to-be. Drove there. Passed it, since the whole place is tarped over. Found myself in a clearly unsafe area with nowhere for a big truck to turn around. Pulled over, called 911. Several times over. Kept getting busy signal. Had mini nervous breakdown. Found my way back to the highway, and then the shuttered truck stop. Parked underneath a BART overpass, prepared for another sleepless night of listening for voices outside.

Then my boyfriend came over, braving the Oakland scariness to spend the night with me in a much-appreciated show of chivalry, and I slept better that night than all the other nights in the truck combined, and wished more than ever that I hadn't gotten myself into this crazy endeavor.

But a resolution is a resolution, so I went and picked up a trailer bound for Portland on Saturday morning. Walked around and inspected the trailer, everything looked fine. Drove more than a hundred miles north, stopped for fuel, and discovered that the trailer door was not latched all the way, so the contents -- 34,000 pounds of building insulation -- was straining at the top of the right-side door, pushing the door out a good six inches. Definitely not safe or legal to drive that way.

Yes, I know it's a classic rookie mistake - check your trailers better. This mistake cost me three days, because that's how long it took Werner to find a local towing company that would come out to the truck stop with a forklift and help me re-work the cargo so the door could be properly shut.

I spent that three days convinced that I was done with this whole endeavor, that as soon as I got up to Portland I would head straight for the company terminal up there and turn in my truck. Hence the doomy Twitter updates (naturally, I got stuck at a truck stop with no Internet access). And then I had a long talk with my dad, who reminded me to think about all of this in proper perspective, and told me to relax and drink some beer and take advantage of the down time. So I did. And on Tuesday morning the towing company finally came and fixed the mutinous cargo and properly latched the door, and I drove through some very pretty mountains to Oregon. And I still have no idea what I want to do, as always. Does this matter? Of course it does, of course it doesn't. I don't know.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Ten hours of driving will make your mind kinda numb

RENO, NV - The wind blows hot and relentless across the desert, nothing in its way to block or slow it down so it picks up speed until it's strong enough to blow anything down. Driving on I-80 today, I watched a cloud of dust rise up and turn into a dust devil as I approached it. It picked up twigs and carried them into the road, spinning its own mini-apocalypse right on the blacktop. So I slowed down, made sure no one else was around me on the road, braced myself, white-knuckled the steering wheel, and drove through it, because there was nothing else to do. It blew me clear to the edge of the left lane with its sheer force pushing against the trailer, a terrible vibration through the whole truck, the trailer fishtailing a little as I tried to steady it all back to the right lane. Hours later, I'm still a little on edge.

And that's what it's been like, emotionally. No matter how much I brace myself and try to prepare for what the days bring, it just bowls me over, leaves me edgy and exhausted. Lots of "Oh god what have I gotten myself into?" moments on all those long and lonely roads, when friends don't pick up their phones and those hours just stretch on and on.

For the five days I've had my truck, I have not stopped running as hard as possible. They way the company has been scheduling me, I have barely had time to stop for the federally mandated 10-hour sleep breaks before hitting the road again. Ten hours is just barely enough to sleep, eat, and shower. This also means that my sleep breaks come at different times each day, not letting me get on any sort of regular schedule. So I drive for 10 hours, then stop and eat crappy truck stop food because I need a real meal and I can't bear to be in the truck anymore, then I crawl back in the sleeper and pass out, get up, start all over again. No real downtime at all. Like right now: I pulled into this truck stop at 5pm local time, and in order to deliver this load on time I'll have to get out of here at 3am. It's still light out and I can't sleep, hence the Internet-time.

I've been told that usually drivers that just get out of training get pretty easy loads with big windows of time, but this has not been my experience. And this kind of frenetic scheduling was one of the things that made training so hellish for me. I know that this sort of running is the only way to make money in this business, but my sanity can't handle it.

There are a lot of things I've learned about myself lately. About my own limits, physically and emotionally. And I'm discovering less and less of a need to prove things to myself and the rest of the world, and trying to figure out what that means for me as a truck driver.

I'm supposed to be home starting this weekend for five days, and I'm already dreading getting back on the road. Five days doesn't feel long enough to make up for the last five weeks.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

I've got this rig that runs on memory

IOWA 80 - I've been a bona fide qualified solo truck driver for two days now. I think I like it, but I haven't stopped for long enough to really figure it out.

I was assigned a truck on Friday, and it spent two days in the shop. It's better now. I like the truck itself - it's a long nosed model, which I really didn't want, but at least it's better than some of the trucks I drove during training. Shifts well, accelerates well, brakes well. And it's super roomy inside, which is also nice. (For those of you who know about trucks: I'm driving a Freightliner Classic.) I'll post pictures when I get the wherewithall to take some.

Sunday night I drove from Indy to Detroit, or rather to a company drop yard close to the Canada bridge, where loads stay before and after border crossings. Monday morning I was sent to pick up a load of salt on the other side of Detroit. All fine and good, except that I-75 is completely closed through the middle of the city. So I took some detours, ended up getting lost in some charmingly bombed-out section of South Detroit, made some probably-illegal turns, finally found I-94 and was finally on my way again. And then my phone rang, and it was my dispatcher telling me to forget about the salt and go back to the drop yard to pick up a trailer that was already there and take it to California. Mind you, that particular trailer had been there since last week. There was absolutely no need for me to drive around South Detroit for two hours. Gah.

Chances are that I'll be swapped off this load because at this point, only a team truck can get it there on time. Either that, or they'll need to push the delivery appointment a day back. This load delivers about an hour from my house, so obviously I'd like to keep it so I can actually go home.

More about how I actually feel about being out on the road by myself at a later time. Like when I actually have time?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

They say his rig is a midnight black

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - Holy crap! I seem to have actually completed training! I'd be bouncing off the walls if I weren't so exhausted from running nonstop on very little sleep for the past several days.

Last trainer dropped me off at the Indy terminal last night, and this morning I did several hours' worth of computer tests and training modules to qualify me out of student status. Now I am on a waiting list for a truck. A truck for ME. No one else would get to drive it or put their stuff in it or make rules about it. Within the confines of my getting my job done and delivering loads on time, I can make my own decisions about my time. Imagine that!

My plan after getting my own truck has been to take my first home time in Portland next weekend so I could attend a friend's wedding, but instead I'm going to ask for a load to take me home as soon I get a truck and talk to my dispatcher. Because drivers are eligible for three days off per three weeks of being out on the road, taking time off in Portland would mean that I wouldn't get home for another three weeks, for a total of about two months away from home. That's more than I can really handle.

I'm getting to know the deep-set existential darkness that sets in when you wake up every day in motion without any idea where you are. That moment just sort of pulls everything else into its own black hole, because you JUST HAVE NO IDEA about anything, and this sets the tone for the rest of the day. I am holding on to the hope that having my own truck, one that does not move unless I am driving it myself, will keep this feeling at bay.

Next update: hopefully from privacy of own truck!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

All they will call you will be deportees

OTAY MESA, CA - Along the Mexican border between San Diego and Tijuana is the biggest cluster of truck yards I've ever seen, all filled to capacity, all bustling day and night with international traffic, truck wheels kicking up gravel and dust that sticks to my skin and won't scrub off. American truck companies come to border towns to drop off goods going south, and the trailers are picked up by muddy cab-over trucks heading to Mexico. And the other way around.

Less than a mile away from the border, in this beautiful, bilingual, fair-weather place, I can almost believe that maybe that line separating the two countries really is imaginary. To the north, the hills of San Diego twinkle with lights in the night. To the south, Tijuana looks the same. One could confuse the two, if not for the gigantic omnipresent signs directing traffic to border crossings. The line just seems so arbitrary, like it was penciled in and everyone forgot they could erase it at any time.

About a hundred miles west of here, over the mountains and through the sand dunes, I-8 snakes next to the border. To the south of the highway, sand-blasted and chained barricades tell you just where the line lies. And again, you'd never know. It's all desert and wasteland as far as the eye can see, in either direction.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Beer cheaper than gas

WILLOW SPRINGS, MO - Bored out of my mind, so very ready to get back on the road. Have been filling up my time with walking around and taking lots of pictures. (Also, sleeping and reading and watching crap TV and eating surprisingly decent pizza.)

Willow Springs 13

Willow Springs 3

More pictures here.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The chaos gives back

WILLOW SPRINGS, MO - Remember how I said I was going to get off Larry's truck at the next terminal we stopped at so I could get another trainer? Yeah, that didn't happen. Instead, I am spending the week in rural southern Missouri, at the only motel in the closest town to where Larry lives.

Willow Springs has a population of about 8,000. It's an hour and a half away from any interstate, nestled in a warm back pocket of the Ozarks. There's a couple blocks' worth of Main Street, most of the businesses shuttered, and a set of railroad tracks. I ate breakfast at Main Street Cafe this morning, and the other diners were talking about farming and politics. One of the men said, "If Nancy Pelosi wants to live in a communist country so much, she ought to move to Canada." I shoveled eggs and toast into my mouth as quickly as possible and got out of there before they smelled California on me.

Outside in the heat, I walked around and took pictures of all the decay and strangeness, the overgrown doorways and broken windows. Then I saw the words "natural food store" and stopped in my tracks. Inside the small shop were organic soaps and essential oils and herbs and handmade jewelry, and I felt so comforted I wanted to cry. The shopkeeper, a older English woman named Erica, told me she used to do much better business before the state built a highway bypass between West Plains and Springfield, because none of the locals actually shop there.

She moved here from England 15 years ago because of an ad she saw in an organic gardening magazine that promised cheap land, fruitful soil, and a long growing season in the Ozarks. She packed up her two small children and crossed the ocean. Most of that ad's promises were not met, but her kids did grow up living off the land and playing outside, which is more than she could have done for them in the outskirts of London. And now, she said, she's got her house and her garden and her shop and her daily routines, and uprooting herself yet again just seems like too much work. Besides, once you turn the world off and just take comfort in the small oasis you've built for yourself, it's not too bad.

Erica rents out the apartment on top of the shop to a young woman named Janis and her son. Janis is from Minnesota but lived in California for 7 years. She moved to the Ozarks to live off the land. (Oh that eternal hippie pipe dream of living off the land.) She has taken on the small empty lot next to the shop as her personal project, building a gazebo and a beautiful flower garden there. The boy showed me his pet turtle named Betty, who lives in a walled flower patch. Tonight, I am going to help Janis plant new flowers.

Erica and Janis told me the local public library would be my best bet for getting online, so here I am. On the way here from the shop, an old black Cadillac limo pulled up to where I was walking. Inside was a man with unkempt long hair and two small children, a preteen girl and a boy under 10. The man asked me if I knew of a place that could buy old silver and gold. I told him I wasn't from around here, and he sped away.

I got here on Tuesday afternoon and wanted to throw myself under a train. But I feel better now. There are stories coming out of the cracks in the pavement here. Just as anywhere else, finding kindred spirits is just a matter of knowing where to look. And goddamn, my life is just such a strange and absurd journey.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The west is the best

SIOUX FALLS, SD - The desert will be the death of me one day. Got stuck in Elko, NV, a few days ago on a truck that kept overheating as it chugged along deserted I-80 in thick air filled with smoke blowing over the Sierras from California burning. Got routed to a repair shop on a hardscrabble strip of casinos, motels, and gas stations, a rare stop between Reno and Salt Lake. My stomach had been doing worrisome sickly flips all day, like all these physical and mechanical components revolting against the overambitious human mind.

I am 47 driving hours away from completing training (would have been done by now if not for aforementioned breakdown and a slew of other unexpected delays), and my next step will likely be getting dropped off in Omaha to wait for another trainer (this would be trainer #5, for those counting at home) because Larry's going home for a week, and he's getting on my last nerve anyway. I don't do well when I don't get regular meals. And I mean, I REALLY don't do well. And flatbed operation requires an amount of effort I just have no inclination to make, especially without regular meals.

But in better news, I found what I believe to be my new favorite stretch of road in all the land: I-84 from Boise to Portland, first winding through the Cascade pines under a weepy gray sky then running along the Columbia river with Washington State on the other bank.

Columbia river sunset

On the night of the Fourth of July, I drove south over the Grapevine snaking uphill towards Los Angeles in gathering dusk, and when I crested the hill the LA basin exploded with light, more and more fireworks beyond hills with every turn, confetti falling and dissipating into the brake lights of city traffic.

The more unfamiliar parts of California I see the more sure I am that this is my home, no matter where I came from or where I'll go in the future.

NorCal Sierra back road

NorCal power line sunrise

(Click on individual pictures for bigger versions. More can be found over on Flickr.)

Friday, July 4, 2008

Lug it out

LODI, CA - I'm sitting in a truck stop about 15 minutes away from my house, but don't have the time or chance to actually go home. It's disorienting to be on home turf yet not be able to act like it. Leaving soon, always leaving soon.

New trainer Larry told me in full seriousness that oranges are bad for you because the acid wears down enamel on teeth. He said this as he put a dip of Copenhagen chewing tobacco between his lip and set of rotting teeth.

Things are all right, I suppose. Larry watched me drive for all of about 15 minutes before he said I had everything under control and retreated into the sleeper, leaving me to drive in peace. What's nice is that I feel comfortable enough already behind the wheel, so I don't need the supervision. Otherwise, he and I have absolutely nothing in common and our conversations feel like we're both speaking different languages.

Also, he doesn't eat. Like, seriously. The man lives on Pepsi and Copenhagen, and when I try to stop for food he acts like we're going to be late for everything in the world because of me. By the happy coincidence of my being in Cali right now, my roommate just met me at this truck stop and brought my cooler, which I left at home because I didn't think I'd need it on a trainer truck. (Thanks again for the cooler, Lunza!) Now I can stock up on sandwiches and stuff, and not sit there munching on Wheat Thins just to stave off the lightheadedness caused by not eating all day, which is what I did yesterday until I finally stopped for a much-needed square meal at about midnight in Oregon.

Oh, and he's a flatbed driver. Which means I am supposed to help strap down things like vinyl window parts to the truck, which is not something I have any intention of ever doing. Ever. Especially not for the amount of money Werner is paying me. Cheap bastards.

I only have 80-odd hours of training left. Should be done by next weekend. This shit seriously needs to be over so I can finally get my own truck.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Going what? Where? Already?

FONTANA, CA - Well, damn. Werner has all of a sudden decided to get shit together and find me a trainer. I'm leaving for Idaho tonight. Idaho! Tonight! Pulling flatbed trailers, apparently? Whatever. I only have a week and a half worth of training left to do, so hopefully I can just get that shit overwith.

Vaya con Dios, amigos!

E.T.A. @ 10pm: Oh, but it really couldn't have been that easy. What my new trainer failed to mention when he called me at noon and told me to get over to the terminal ASAP was that the truck was in the shop. We sat and waited for it until 9:30, then went back to the hotel. It's supposed to be ready in the morning, but I'm not holding my breath.

Highlight of the day: listening to a driver from southern Louisiana talk about the best way to cook roadkill armadillos. Apparently, you turn the armadillo on its back, split it open from the stomach, scoop the meat out of the shell, marinade it in vinegar, then cook in a crock pot. Learn something new every day...

Saturday, June 28, 2008

All hands on deck at dawn

STOCKTON, CA - Hello? Is this thing on?

I've been home on a leave of absence from work/the road for a month. Tomorrow morning, I am getting on a bus heading back to Fontana, CA, to resume training for Werner. More adventures and desperate Twitter posts from far-off lands will resume shortly.

I appreciate the comments and other calls of concern during June's radio silence. I just sort of needed some space from Internet-land, you know? I've done a lot of sleeping and reading and cooking and eating, spent a lot of time with people I care about, applied for some local jobs that I didn't end up getting, and am now falling back on the Original Plan B of truckin' across the USA. Lots of mixed feelings, still, but for now I've gotta finish what I started.

If you go out right now and get into any moving vehicle headed in an unfamiliar direction and blast this song, you'll get an idea of how I'm feeling.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

I've been traveling so long, how am I ever gonna know my home when I see it again?

STOCKTON, CA - You read that right, I'm back to the home base. Finally, after two full days on a Greyhound bus that followed three days of no sleep on a truck. This is gonna be a long one, kids.

The first issue at hand is that my beloved state of California, bless its heart, has screwed up royally by not sending me a permanent copy of my CDL. All this time, I've been trucking around on a temporary one, a print-out from the state saying that I was in fact a licensed commercial driver in wait of a new and shiny permanent copy. The temporary expires on June 2 (tomorrow, as of time of writing). The last couple weeks my roommate has been texting me status updates when he came home to check the mail - still no license. Each time I called the DMV, they'd tell me something ridiculous and apologize and say it would be in the mail that very day, but obviously they are a bunch of stinking liars.

With the expiration date so close at hand, Werner started getting worried about my driving status. When I was assigned a new trainer, they told me we'd get routed California-way immediately so I could either pick up my license or be dropped off to take care of this issue.

And in comes my third trainer, Dana, who is by far the best one of the lot. She and I get along great, and we hit the road on Tuesday once her truck gets out of the shop, with a load destined for Red Bluff, CA. We barely get an hour outside of Dallas when it becomes apparent that the truck was not really fixed, even though this was the truck's fourth time in the shop for the same problem - the AC freezing up. It works fine for the first hour or so after starting up, then either stops blowing air or starts blowing hot air. At that point, the only thing one can do is shut the truck down, pop the hood, chip off the LARGE CHUNKS OF ICE that have formed on the AC pipes, and wait at least 15 minutes for the system to thaw. Obviously, one can't make very good time stopping this way.

So here we are, driving through the desert with no AC. This is bad enough for driving, but absolutely unbearable for sleeping, because the sleeper windows don't actually open and the space heats up exactly like you'd imagine a closed metal box to heat up. Dana calls in an emergency maintenance request and dispatch tells us to go to a Peterbilt dealership in Albuqurque. We spend the entirety of Wednesday there. In the meantime, the company sends another driver to come get our trailer, since we obviously can't make it to the destination on time. We get out of the dealership by nightfall with the lead mechanic promising up and down that the problem is fixed, and are promptly dispatched to El Paso to pick up another load.

Imagine driving around El Paso, TX, where the weather is a temperate 110 degrees (yes, really), lost as hell trying to find a warehouse, with hot air coming at you from the windows AND the AC vents. Obviously, the problem was not fixed. Dana, completely fed up and angry at this point, calls dispatch and tells them that she's taking the truck back to Dallas (which is her home terminal) so they can give her another truck, since this one appears to be irreparable. They proceed to tell her that plenty of drivers do just fine without AC, and that she's just a silly lady driver who should quit whining. Eventually, her intention to trade in the truck turn into an intention to turn the truck in and quit the company. So we spend Thursday driving from El Paso to Dallas in the horrid Texas summer heat, stopping frequently to chip ice off.

Remember how I've said before that Texas is pretty much its own level of hell? Yeah, that. I drove the night shift, which was still hot but somewhat more bearable, but every time I stopped for ice-chipping I was attacked by legions of gigantic weird bugs. Have I mentioned yet that I hate Texas? Oh, and the load we were taking back was destined for Quebec. Last I checked, Quebec was sort of in the opposite direction and a different country from California, making it very hard for me to get my license issues taken care of, and far enough that it would be illegal for me to operate a truck by the time we got there.

We spent a few hours sitting at the truck stop just outside the Dallas terminal as Dana argued with dispatch. Finally, we took the truck into the terminal, cleaned it out and went our separate ways. I'd already requested to take home time by this point, since it was clear that my license was not on its way. My options at this point were to let Werner pay for a Greyhound bus ticket, or put a plane ticket on my credit card in hopes that the company would later reimburse me, which I honestly don't trust it to do.

Got on the bus in Dallas on Friday afternoon. Bus promptly broke down in Abilene, leaving all of us stranded in a roach-infested station for five hours until another bus came and retraced the roads I'd driven the night before. I slept, woke up, cursed the world for making Texas so damn huge, many times over. Several crazy people who talked to themselves sat next to me. Some guy tried to pick me up in Phoenix by saying, "Do you got a baby daddy?" Another guy tried to pick me up in Bakersfield by saying, "Where are you headed? Are you going home to see your kids? That's what I'm doing. I just got out of prison. Do you have a boyfriend?" The highlight of the trip was a three-hour layover in LA early Sunday morning, where I ordered an egg sandwich at the station cafe and almost cried from happiness when I saw the cook crack an actual egg on the grill because that's how long it's been since I watched real food be prepared for my consumption. Got off the bus in Stockton Sunday afternoon, filthy and braindead.

The interesting thing about Greyhound buses is that they are arguably the least pretentious way to travel. There are no excuses or apologies made for the lack of good service, comfort, or promptness, because let's face it, if you're taking Greyhound you're letting the world know that your ass is flat broke but you still somehow need to get from point A to point B, so you obviously can't afford to complain.

I am pretty sure at this point that I will not be going back to Werner. I haven't decided yet whether I want to keep driving trucks or not. I need to gather my thoughts here, sleep in my own bed, see people I love, eat real food, figure out what happened with my license, and process all that's happened in the past six weeks. Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Everybody needs some time on their own

DALLAS, TX - Arrived in Dallas and had a trainer assigned to me the following day. Unfortunately, her truck is in the shop until Tuesday. Damn. Stuck again.

The new trainer is the best one yet. She is a collector of second hand make-up bags, which she uses for every purpose imaginable. The brown bag holds pliers and screwdrivers, the leopard print one is for phone chargers and accessories, the black one is for fuses and other mechanical items. Her truck is craftily rigged with shelves and storage spaces attached by bungee cords and clips, equipped with everything you could ever need on the road. We get along incredibly well so far. She says that after we hit the road on Tuesday, I'll be done with my training before I know it. But I've heard that before, so I'm not holding my breath.

In the meantime, I am stuck in Texas, which I am convinced is its own special level of hell. I mean, really. Half the state smells like sulphur. The Dallas terminal is the biggest that Werner has, and the only one that has a hotel onsite. It is one of the crappiest lodging places I've ever stayed in, run down and dirty. All the buildings here form a gated, fenced-in compound - the fences to protect us from what is genuinely a shady area. Food delivery guys hand us pizzas and bags of Chinese over the barbed wire and take money through the fence as we make jokes about being in jail. Outside the wires, toothless prostitutes and their pimps circle the truck stop and hide in the tall grass of abandoned lots. The wind blowing across these plains is strong, hot, damp, relentless. It puts out cigarettes and steals words from lips, takes my resolve away, leaves a layer of sticky dust on my skin.

A reader recently left a comment asking me whether I miss the cerebral side of my past life, which is an interesting enough question to earn a public response.

In a way, I feel like what I'm doing now is more "cerebral" than what I was doing before. My most recent job had me writing mindless, middling news stories centered around mindless, middling towns. The job title of news reporter connotes thought and analysis, but the job I had was so dumbed down that a trained monkey could do it: go to boring city council meeting, write crap story. Lather, rinse, repeat.

These days, I write feverishly into the night. I see and hear more things than I have a chance to write down in the course of a day. My mind is on fire with ideas and observations. Some days (when on the road, of course, not sitting around hellish hotel rooms), the need to write overpowers the need to sleep. The paper journal I brought with me is almost out of clean pages. Most of this writing does not make it to the blog because it's part of something larger, and I won't share it until the larger project takes on a more cohesive shape.

The biggest challenge is to keep this big picture in mind. The main reason I am out here is to write about it, but it's easy - too easy - to lose myself in the small things, the highs and lows of each passing day. But as long as the pen is moving across the page, I remember why I'm here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

West, but not far enough

LAKELAND, FL - They're sending me to Dallas. Apparently not a whole lot of drivers/trainers go through Florida because there isn't much freight going out of this state, but there are so many students here that they're putting us in rental cars and sending us to Dallas. This whole thing is becoming almost comically ridiculous.

I sort of had a meltdown last night. My roommate had left in the morning and I had spent the whole day holed up in the hotel room by myself watching the Food Network and driving myself crazy, and ended up crying on the phone to R in the middle of the night, talking about my tendencies to run away from myself.

It's so hard to gain momentum, then so easy to lose it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Stranded again - the Florida edition

LAKELAND, FL - Melissa was supposed to pick me up today so we could get back on the road. Instead, she called to say that her boyfriend got laid off from his trucking job and is going to come work for Werner so they can drive as a team. Which means I'm stranded in wait of yet another trainer. AGAIN.

I swear, if I were anywhere near California right now, I would quit and go home. Instead, I am about as far as I could get from home while still remaining in the lower 48 states. I am so tired of this.

I am full of daydreams of a faraway touch, but the air here is thick as hot swamp water, trees overhung with the tattered lace of Spanish moss trapped in the stillness, weather too oppressive even for daydreams. There's no poetry in in-between places, just the endless ticking of clocks.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The girl truck

LAKELAND, FL - I was really surprised to hear from my new trainer less than 24 hours after my last one dropped me in Ohio, and even more surprised that it was a woman. Melissa came in all tight jeans and feathered bangs, straight out of the 80s. I got on the truck that evening, we picked up a load in Toledo and rushed down to Miami, where it had to be on Friday morning. In the course of that rushed 30-hour stretch during which the truck never really stopped moving, I learned a lot of things about my new trainer. For instance, the man she calls her "husband" is really her long-distance boyfriend, even though she's still married to someone else and so is he. Also, that her stalker ex-boyfriend likes to text message her with marriage proposals. That she will curse out other truck drivers, then get on the CB and be sweet as pie to them. Also, that she has no teeth, which is helpful to her anorexia.

Just when I was starting to adore her trashy awesomeness (or maybe her awesome trashiness), we arrived in Miami. I'd never been to Florida before, and the rest of the state really did not impress me, but there was something about Miami that enchanted me instantly - something about the security guards with Haitian accents, and the fresh fruit and Cuban desserts on the roach coach that pulled up to the dock where we were waiting to unload the trailer, the brightness and glitter of early morning shining with this delicious cultural twist. After too much time in the monotone of the Midwest, it was the perfect city flavor to land on my tongue.

And just as I was relishing the taste of Miami morning, Melissa set in with a long and involved tirade about how this part of her home state is now full of black and Hispanic people, and how much she hates both, complete with long and bone-chillingly racist reasons why. It was then that I noticed the small confederate flag sticker on her CB radio. Oy.

I've kept my mouth shut so far. Except for the awful, blatant racism, I like her a lot. We get along. She's a good driver, and a good teacher - at least for me, it seems. My last trainer was a good driver too, as well as a licensed mechanic, and he was constantly appalled at all the things I didn't know about how trucks and other vehicles function, and tried to make me feel bad for not knowing things I don't know, which is bullshit. Melissa, on the other hand, breaks things down into terms I understand. And her truck is a lot easier to handle and shift than the last one I was on, though technically it's a lot older and crappier. I'm going to chalk that one up to female energy.

I asked me why she became a truck driver, and she told me the story of how she went to visit her grandfather in Wisconsin at the age of 8. He was a driver, and had an ancient cab-over truck. She sat in a lawn chair in the space generally reserved for a passenger seat and looked at the countryside they were passing through, so high up above everything, moving so fast. It was one of the big defining moments of her life. She told him then, "One day, Grandpa, I'm going to drive a truck just like you." He replied, "Over my dead body, you will." But he changed his mind once he saw her behind the wheel, she said.

One thing I really like is the difference I feel between walking into a truck stop or shipper's office with another woman rather than a man. With my last trainer, everyone assumed I was his wife or girlfriend, and always addressed him first, assuming he was in charge of the truck - which was true, obviously, but not for those reasons. I always felt self-conscious during those moments, and angry at the assumptions, but powerless against them since I am "just a student." With Melissa, it feels more like equal footing. Other drivers and the company's customers don't know which one of us to address first, and they get confused, and it's fantastic to see the looks on people's faces as they slowly realize that no, there are no men on that truck. Right now, I am spending my energy trying to somehow get past the racism so I can mine this woman for writing material.

She is taking home time this weekend, and I get to stay in a hotel. Unlike my last trainer, she will actually pick me back up after the weekend is over. The hotel is near our company terminal in the Tampa area. I considered renting a car or something and going exploring, but I've been on the road for nearly a month and nothing seems as wonderful as indulging as sleeping in a hotel bed and lounging by the pool for a couple days. Especially since my birthday is tomorrow.

Also, just as a note about how I've been living - I haven't had a shower, proper meal, or a chance to sleep longer than two hours at a stretch since Ohio. I am a dirty, hungry, and tired girl, yet what do I do first upon checking into my hotel room? I check my email and update my blog. Priorities are priorities, after all.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Stranded again

SPRINGFIELD, OH - Looks like I'll be in Ohio for the next few days. Bah. My trainer went on home time, and dropped me off here.

Here's what supposed to happen when a trainer goes on home time: s/he contacts the company, the company gets the student a hotel room as close as possible to the trainer's house, the trainer drops the student off and then picks her back up when the home time is done.

Knowing my trainer was going on home time, I assumed I'd be spending a few days in northern Michigan. Instead, he told me he never takes students home, and instead dropped me off at our Ohio terminal on his way home. Which means I get to sit here in the middle of Ohio, waiting for another trainer.

If the wait is as long as it was in Fontana, I'll be here for a while. Oy. I'm not a happy girl right now. But at least I get a real bed to sleep in, and an Internet connection, and a roommate who seems pretty cool. So it could be worse?

I wish he'd dropped me off a terminal that's near people I know. SoCal would have been fine, or Atlanta, or Portland. Instead I'm in Ohio. Anyone reading this live in Ohio? Want to come entertain me?

Oh, and my birthday is in four days. Chances are, I'll be spending it in a hotel room. Bah.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

There's a freeway running through the yard

HARRISBURG, PA - The morning after my last blog post, I met fellow truck blogger GiGi in a Texarkana Flying J bathroom. We were both brushing our teeth and washing our faces in the early morning hours, and she said, "Don't you just love living out of public bathrooms?" And I looked at her pink Schneider hat and her slightly familiar face and said, "Wait, are you GiGi? Do you have a blog?" I wish we'd had more time to talk and share road stories, but instead we both had to run off in our respective trucks. I even forgot to ask for her real name in that bleary-eyed morning rush.

It's a small world, kids, and the Internet makes it smaller still. Hi GiGi! Hopefully next time we'll actually share a meal?

* * * * *

Last night I drove from midnight through morning through the longest part of Virginia on I-81, just me and the night and coffee and cigarettes. Talked to my man, middle of the night on the east but barely midnight back in Cali, and his voice was like a lantern in the dark, calming my nerves. When the dawn came over the Shenandoah Valley it was all shades of purple through a fog thick as dreams. The fog had lifted by the time I drove through a tiny chunk of Maryland, and I had to fight against myself to not take the exit for I-70 east and go to Baltimore.

It's all dreams and false alarms, Amelia, as always.

* * * * *

Finally getting a chance to go through and upload some pictures I've taken in the last few weeks. You can find the whole set over here on Flickr. I'll be adding to it as I keep going. Here are a few of my favorites (click on the pictures for bigger versions):

Skyline face
My trainer was trying to take a picture of the Nashville skyline. What he got instead was the outline of my face over the landscape.

A selection of sunrises and sunsets:
Before dawn (rest area in Arkansas)
A rest area in Arkansas just before dawn
Truck yard sunrise (Phoenix, AZ)
Truck yard sunrise in Phoenix, AZ
Sunset storm clouds over Illinois
Sunset storm clouds over southern Illinois
Sunrise over Shenandoah
Shenandoah Valley sunrise

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Liquid chicken and other inedible products

TEXARKANA, AR - When I get home, I am going to eat a big pile of avocados on top of a bed of organic spinach, and wash it down with shade-grown coffee made in a French press. Then I'm going to go to my favorite taqueria and eat a big, messy, spicier than hell burrito. Then I'm going to find the hottest vegetable curry and bathe in it.

Truck stop food loses its kitsch value when you eat it every day. Here's a tip, kids: don't try the buffet. It may be cheap, and you may be very hungry, and you may have the best and most research-centered intentions, but you will not be happy after you eat it. I'm almost to the point where I feel no more need to experiment with things I haven't tried, which is saying a lot. From now on, I plan to only eat breakfast food (because it takes a lot of skill to mess up pancakes and eggs) and pie.

Earlier today I passed a tanker truck hauling liquid chicken. LIQUID CHICKEN. I don't even want to know.

Last week, on a quick jaunt through SoCal, I found some pears in the usually meager selection of dumpy fruit at a truck stop. I picked the least beaten-looking one out of the bunch, washed it, and wrapped it in napkins like it was a small treasure. I waited to eat it until I was in the privacy of the truck, biting off little pieces at a time, sucking out the pulp and juice until I got to the core. It was the most erotic experience I've had since I've been on the road.

Being the spoiled California foodie that I am, I knew food would be a sacrifice for me. But I didn't expect it to be rubbed in my face. My trainer hauls refrigerated trailers, and half the time they are filled with produce. When we pick up in SoCal, it's all fresh lettuce and avocados and oranges in another step to get them on grocery store shelves. It feels so cruel to haul all this delicious produce for other people to eat while I have to make do with truck stop salad bars stocked with wilted iceberg lettuce and canned tomatoes.

On a completely different note, my good friend Cindy is now writing for the Huntington Beach Independent, and the first issue of her new column mentions some girl who quit a news reporter job to become a trucker.

If you've arrived at this blog via Cindy's column: welcome! I assure you that when I'm done with training and get my own truck, the updates will be much more frequent.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

I leave Carolina every night in my dreams

GREENSBORO, NC - I stepped out of the truck and the air smelled so familiar, bittersweet, all Southern springtime blooms and diesel fumes. Tomorrow I start the trek back out west, to Arizona, the whole way on I-40, starting the day by passing through Statesville, which I'm sure will make me twitch a whole lot.

I'm making slow, painful progress with my shifting and driving. But feeling better, overall. Getting to see Sara in Atlanta yesterday was wonderful, just to talk face to face with someone who knows me and could give me a real reminder of what I'm doing out here.

Don't have a lot of time right now, internet connection sucks, computer's almost out of juice and no place to plug it in, but here's something from journal scribbles a couple nights ago:

I found Kerouac's Sad American Night in a truck stop in southern Georgia, my body stiff and tired from driving 10 hours. Sound came at me as if underwater, the hum of diesel engines past midnight in the soft Southern darkness. Faint music came from the all night shop, where mechanic boys with dirty hands smoked cigarettes. The grimy restaurant was like walking into an Edward Hopper painting, everything moving slowly and lights flickering.

The night before, I dreamed my love and I were walking in an autumnal forest in evening. His face shone like gold in the dying light. I awoke in a moving truck, and my eyes instantly burned from the realization of the light years and so many regrets away from him.

I found the Sad American Night, and it was just as Jack said it would be: quiet and mournful, only accessible through heartache and lack of sleep and feeling like a tumbleweed along these roads. I found it, and immediately realized it was not a destination, but an unfortunate way station for those who've lost their way.

Monday, April 28, 2008

My heartland fade across the line

CHICAGO, IL - Funny thing about this new life of mine: sometimes I go for days on end without internet access, sometimes I get two full evenings to sit in truck stop cafes and play online. Currently enjoying a cup of tea and some chocolate pudding in a gigantic and very muddy truck stop in Chicago after running around northern Illinois all day. It was snowing! Now it's just raining and miserable and cold.

As per suggestions (and my own prior intentions), I've set up a Twitter account. I'll be posting short updates from my cell phone at least daily when I can't get online. If you're reading this blog by visiting the page, you can find it at the top of the sidebar. If you're getting it through a feed, look me up on Twitter.

Right now would be a good time to upload a bunch of pictures I've taken lately, but the camera cord is in the truck and I don't feel like wading though half a mile of mud just to get it right now. Instead, I'll transcribe some of the notes I've taken over the past week.

Randomly heard on the CB somewhere in AZ or NM: "What the hell are we doing out here on these roads? You spend so much time in that truck that when you get out you look like a big old walking bucket seat."

The man in the next truck at the TA in Santa Rosa, NM, is sitting behind the steering wheel, reading a newspaper and drinking milk straight out of the carton. Just another evening at home...

A young woman in a truck stop bathroom is scrubbing her face over and over. "Sixteen hours in a car," she says to me when she sees me watching her. "Try a few days in a big rig," I tell her, smile, and walk out as she looks at me in awe.

I asked my trainer why he chose to be a coed trainer, because many of the male trainers I met in Fontana said they'd never train women. "They are better students," he said. "They listen better."

Going to Georgia tomorrow. One can only hope it will not be snowing. And the further away I am from California, the less likely I am to walk off the truck. And after a long phone conversation last night, I feel a little more at peace with where I am right now.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Wandering through the hills of Iowa

WALCOTT, IA - I am currently in the world's largest truck stop. No, really. It's pretty exciting.

Another exciting thing: I just took my first shower in four days. Ah, welcome to life on the road.

The first two weeks of student driver training are supposed to be introductory. The trainer gets loads that s/he can handle alone, with the student along to observe and drive a few hours. After the two weeks, the truck becomes a team truck, which means it never stops moving, with the trainer driving 10 hours then the student driving the same amount of time. In practice, this rarely happens, and dispatchers treat the truck as a team truck from the day the student gets in it.

This arrangement does not work well for a student like me, who ought to go call her truck school and get her money back - at least, according to my trainer. I don't know how to shift a damn truck. I don't know how to shift, period. I never drove stick shift before truck school, and the transmissions my school used are vastly different from the transmissions Werner uses, and I'm lost. It's been suggested I go work for a company that uses exclusively automatic trucks.

My trainer has actually been very nice and honest about all of this. He's a nice guy, a big, bearded, dry-witted man from Michigan. It's a little bit like driving around with Michael Moore. It's not his fault that I suck at this, and he's doing all he can to help me, but it's been a week and I'm still lost.

And with every wrong move I make and every gear I miss, I think about the person I left behind. My heart is not in this. It's not on the road anymore, at least not right now.

It's always been so easy for me to leave. Sure, I've missed people and places, but it's always been a wistful glance in the rearview mirror as I drove away. But it gets harder every time, the weight of previous departures building up to an anchor I carry with me.

Today, driving down the rolling hills of Iowa, I realized that all I'm doing is running away again, as I always do. And I hate myself for it.

I don't know what this all means. I've been two seconds away from grabbing my stuff and walking off the truck for the entire time I've been here. But I'm in Iowa so I can't do it right now. And my mind spins through so many thoughts in the span of an hour that I lose track. And, well, I just don't know.

Friday, April 25, 2008

RIVERSIDE, CA - Back in SoCal after a run to Amarillo, TX, and back.

Honestly, it's been rough. Crying in truck stop bathrooms kind of rough. I'm having second and third and millionth thoughts. But I'm here. It's only been four days.

No time at all to get online. Currently borrowing my trainer's laptop to post. Probably won't have time or chance to post on my own until I get my own truck.

Don't panic. It always gets worse before it gets better.

Monday, April 21, 2008


I got a trainer! His name is Paul. I haven't met him yet, but he's picking me up at the terminal at 10am Tuesday morning, and we have to get to North Carolina (of all places) by Friday, then pick up another load and take it to Arizona.

So, here we go. I might be out of contact for a few days...

Friday, April 18, 2008

Hurry up and wait


Sitting around the hotel waiting for Werner to find me a trainer. STILL. Already changed my preference to coed, so as to get the hell out of here faster. D and I have been doing a lot of walking around, but the Inland Empire isn't the most engaging place in the world, ahem. You know it's bad when I get excited about having access to a Starbucks. The rest of the time, just sitting around and listening to truckers' stories.

About half the people at this hotel are Werner drivers, either waiting for trainers or for their trucks to get fixed. The other half is business people. It's endlessly fascinating to watch the tension between the two groups.

My friend Mandy, a former NC newsie colleague who's now a reporter in Palm Springs, drove over to hang out with me Thursday night. We ate salads and drank tea and talked about men and the failure of the news industry. After she dropped me off at the hotel, I felt even more disassociated than I've felt in the last few days, which was already pretty disassociated. Half of me wants nothing more than to get on the road and go, go, go. The other half is ready to give in to this vicious heartache and go back to NorCal.

What D keeps telling me whenever I start whining about all this is, "No matter what you think you should have done, you're here already. And you'll never forgive yourself if you go back now." She's right. I just need to get the crap out of FonTucky. Aaaaany minute now...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Truck stop barbecues and bitchy women

FONTANA, CA - "There's a barbecue every night at every truck stop," the man says, and puts a new coat of barbecue sauce on the ribs he's grilling. He and some others have made a WalMart run and came back to the truck terminal with enough meat to feed a hungry horde of truckers. The man running the grill is wearing a confederate flag baseball cap, a muscle shirt, and cowboy boots. He is chain smoking Marlboro Reds and speaking with one of the heaviest Carolina drawls I've ever heard, and after living in NC for a year I've heard many.

It's damn good barbecue though. Tons better than anything I had while living down there.

* * * * *

I've become fast friends with the one other woman in my 20-person orientation class, D. She is a big, gregarious blonde who's spent the last 18 years raising her son by herself out in the high desert near Joshua Tree. Now that the boy is grown, she wants to see the country, get out there on the road on her own.

There's a lot of talk among the few women here about the advantages and disadvantages of female trainers. First of all, it takes substantially longer to get one than I was originally told - like several weeks, and I have no particular desire to spend that much time waiting around. All the trainers go through extensive training, and the men who train coed are closely monitored. I'm really not worried about my safety. My primary reason for wanting a female trainer was research purposes, but I'm not sure it's worth it.

My new friend offered up another good point. "Why would I want a female trainer? I barely like myself. I can be a real bitch. Why would I want to be stuck in a truck with another me?"

I'm pretty sure I'm going to call and change my preference to coed. Anyone out there have thoughts on this matter?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Character sketches, in transit

RIVERSIDE, CA* - The bus that takes me from Stockton (my homebase, for those following along at home) to start training in Fontana, CA, is filled with other truck drivers, all going down to SoCal for the same reason as me, albeit with different companies. It's encouraging to have that bit of camaraderie on the 10-hour ride down, to hear the jargon in which I'll be immersed from now on.

But the man who sits next to me between Fresno and LA is not a trucker. He is from Texarcana, TX. His skin is freckled and tanned like leather around tired, bright blue eyes. He introduced himself by asking about the book I'm reading (the gigantic tome of "Infinite Jest") and launches into a long monologue about his favorite horror books and movies.

He is traveling with his son. The son is 14, the father tells me, and he ran away from and ended up in Fresno, and the father has been on Greyhound buses for two and a half days, all the way from east Texas to central California, to pick up his son. They are now headed back eastward, two and a half more days of buses ahead of them.

The boy is pale-skinned, dark-haired, thin, with a trace of mustache on his lip. Wounded adolescent pride shoots from his eyes like arrows when he's not slumped over in his seat, his head in his hands.

"That's trouble right there," the father says, his voice fraught with painfully unconditional love as he looks at the boy across the aisle. "See that hickey on his neck? He's trouble."

I switch buses in LA and head east, away from the sunset and back to the inland dust. When I go to check into the hotel where Werner puts its recruits, the girl at the desk informs me I have a roommate, which I was not expecting. The light in the room is off and no one responds to my light knock, so I walk in. I'm greeted with a loud, "What the hell do you want?" uttered by a small, disheveled woman in sweats.

My roommate is from Compton. She is watching a Medea movie on TV and chain smoking (inside the hotel room, in California, highly illegal). There's a Bible for women, all pink curlicues on the cover, on the bed next to her. She eyes me viciously, so I go out to get some food. When I come back, she is in the same position, albeit slightly more talkative.

She tells me that she was doing her training when she had to take time off for a funeral. She got back to the hotel just yesterday to wait for another trainer. "It's not your fault," she says. "But I told that damn front desk girl to just give me one day to deal with my shit, but obviously she don't care." We smoke a cigarette together, hot-boxing the small room. During a commercial, she gives me what I take to be her biggest piece of advice for new drivers: don't make friends with anyone. "Your trainer might try to be all buddy-buddy with you, but just keep it all business," she says. I think I will respectfully decline that piece of advice, but I definitely get the point as far as she herself is concerned.

In an effort to give this unlikely roommate her space, I am in the hotel lobby with my computer and my tiredness. Tomorrow morning I get up at the ass-crack of dawn to start orientation, which lasts for two days. Then I get to hang out here until Werner finds me a trainer, which could take up to a week since I requested a female trainer and those are harder to come by. Oh the adventures, they are just beginning.

*All posts from here on out will bear AP style datelines stating my current location.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

How Rosie got hired

The most recent member newsletter from the Women in Trucking Association ran this hilarious piece from the well-buried vaults of Mass Transportation magazine. The newsletter isn't available online, but this just needs to be shared.

1943 Guide to Hiring Women
Excerpt from the July 1943 issue of Mass Transportation magazine. Written by L. H. Sanders for male supervisors of women in the work force during World War II.

Eleven Tips on Getting More Efficiency Out of Women Employees: There's no longer any question whether transit companies should hire women for jobs formerly held by men. The draft and manpower shortage has settled that point. The important things now are to select the most efficient women available and how to use them to the best advantage. Here are eleven helpful tips on the subject
from western properties:

1. If you can get them, pick young married women. They have these advantages, according to the reports of western companies: they usually have more of a sense of responsibility than do their unmarried sisters; they're less likely to be flirtatious; as a rule, they need the work or they wouldn't be doing it — maybe a sick husband or one who's in the army; they still have the pep and interest to work hard and to deal with the public efficiently.

2. When you have to use older women, try to get ones who have worked outside the home at some time in their lives. Most transportation companies have found that older women who have never contacted the public, have a hard time adapting themselves, are inclined to be cantankerous and fussy. It's always well to impress upon older women the importance of friendliness and courtesy.

3. While there are exceptions, of course, to this rule, general experience indicates that "husky" girls — those who are just a little on the heavy side — are likely to be more even-tempered and efficient than their underweight sisters.

4. Retain a physician to give each woman you hire a special physical examination — one covering female conditions. This step not only protects the property against the possibilities of lawsuit but also reveals whether the employee-to-be has any female weaknesses which would make her mentally or physically unfit for the job. Transit companies that follow this practice report a surprising number of women turned down for nervous disorders.

5. In breaking in women who haven't previously done outside work, stress at the outset the importance of time — the fact that a minute or two lost here and there makes serious inroads on schedules. Until this point is gotten across, service is likely to be slowed up.

6. Give the female employe in garage or office a definite day-long schedule of duties so that she'll keep busy without bothering the management for instructions every few minutes. Numerous properties say that women make excellent workers when they have their jobs cut out for them but that they lack initiative in finding work themselves.

7. Whenever possible, let the inside employe change from one job to another at some time during the day. Women are inclined to be nervous and they're happier with change.

8. Give every girl an adequate number of rest periods during the day. Companies that are already using large numbers of women stress the fact that you have to make some allowances for feminine psychology. A girl has more confidence and consequently is more efficient if she can keep her hair tidied, apply fresh lipstick and wash her hands several times a day.

9. Be tactful in issuing instructions or in making criticisms. Women are often sensitive; they can't shrug off harsh words the way that men do. Never ridicule a woman — it breaks her spirit and cuts her efficiency.

10. Be reasonably considerate about using strong language around women. Even though a girl's husband or father may swear vociferously, she'll grow to dislike a place of business where she hears too much of this.

11. Get enough size variety in operator uniforms that each girl can have a proper fit. This point can't be stressed too strongly as a means of keeping women happy, according to western properties.
I think my favorite point is number 3: fat girls are more even-tempered that skinny ones. Wow. But as absurd as this is, it was serious when it was published - and for its time was probably considered to be progressive.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Driving test: third time is the charm

I am officially a licensed commercial driver. Woohoo! It only took, uh, three tries, but I passed and that's what matters.

On Thursday I wound myself tighter than could ever be advisable and as a result stalled out the truck, which was an automatic failure. Felt like crap, because it's a stupid mistake that I haven't made since the second week of school. Went back Friday morning and passed everything, finally. Was still super nervous, but made it.

The truck driving test? It's no joke. Getting the thing through traffic, maneuvering in tight spots, backing up, knowing what everything under the hood does. It's a lot of stuff to know and put into practice.

This has been a very humbling experience. Now, I know I'm a pretty smart kid, but here I put myself into a situation where I came in not knowing my alternator from my brake chamber. Like the time several weeks ago when we were practicing doing pre-trip inspections and I stood in front of the opened hood and rattled off names of parts. Then the instructor said, "You can't just name the parts, you have to point to where they are in the truck," and I started laughing because I had no clue. Not saying I could fix a diesel engine now or anything, but at least I know my way around one.

But for a second there, between my embarrassing failure on Thursday and my eventual pass on Friday, I kept thinking, "Crap, what am I going to do? This was the Plan B for my life, and I don't have a Plan C."

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Driving test, take one

I have failed my first attempt at a DMV driving test. Doh!

It wasn't even really my fault. I was mostly done with the route and was on the freeway headed to the lot by the county fairgrounds for the parking skills test (the part I was most worried about), when a car cut me off. I was trying to merge into the right lane to take an exit, and the car sped up on the on-ramp and zoomed past me at about 80mph. It made my driving test an automatic fail, since I allegedly didn't see the car coming. After failing me, the examiner told me that my driving was excellent, which made me want to punch him in the face.

Very, very pissed off about this. I'd like to hunt down the driver of that car, beat him to a bloody pulp, and steal $30, because that's how much I need to pay to re-test. Fuckity fuck. I go back to the DMV on Thursday. One can only hope that the jackass drivers of Stockton will have taken themselves out by then.

Monday, March 31, 2008

P's and Q's

My truck school buddy S recently told me he was a little upset when he originally learned I'd be in his group. "I didn't want a girl in the truck with me," he said. "Nothing against you specifically, I just didn't want to have to mind my P's and Q's all the time." This was before he learned that I was virtually unoffendable. He's gotten over it by now, obviously, since he can tell me this and we can laugh about it, but it makes me wonder about the impact of such an attitude.

I've been lucky so far, and haven't run into the "girls can't drive trucks" attitude. Then again, I'm in northern California, at a school staffed largely by women, and it's the 21st freaking century when some national companies have hair salons in their terminals. My classmate's comments are making me realize that the lack of obvious opposition to women being in this industry does not necessarily mean acceptance. They may not question the legitimacy of my presence in the driver's seat, but they will curb their behavior when I'm around.

The upside is that I'll hear fewer farts and stupid jokes. But the downside strikes me as a dangerous sort of social inequality. Many male drivers, I realize now, will put on their best face when talking to me, and will therefore fail to be frank. In a way, this subtle double standard is harder to handle than a "girls can't drive trucks" attitude: I can't just put on my best scowl and flex my arm in Rosie the Riveter fashion and let them choke on my exhaust as I drive away, I need to instead spend a few weeks side by side with them to prove I am an equal, like what it took with S.

I don't much care what anyone thinks of me, but my concern here is the authenticity of experience - I am doing this for the sake of writing about it, after all. And just knowing that there may be an undercurrent of manner-minding behind any given conversation is pretty aggravating to me.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


I haven't talked much about the logistics of what I'm doing with my days, or the plans already laid for the next several months, so here's an attempt to fill in the blanks.

About half of my truck school class time is spent driving around town, getting used to handling various road situations in a big truck. I'm getting much better at shifting and double clutching. (You can't just change gears in one motion in a truck: instead, you clutch it into neutral, let up on the clutch, rev up the RPMs, then clutch it into gear, ideally in the same amount of time you'd change gears in a car.) Lemme tell ya: you have no idea how much of a scare you can give people on the road until you barrel past them in a semi with a truck school's logo emblazoned all over it. If they don't give you wide berth, you can be sure they are Darwin Award candidates.

The hard part, really, is maneuvering the truck. This is the practice that takes place in our school yard, spitting distance from Highway 99 on the industrial side of town. We do a lot of backing up in a straight line, turning around obstacles without knocking them over, parallel parking, and backing up at a 90-degree angle - which is also called alley docking, and is by far the hardest maneuver, and one that's most commonly required in the real world, like at loading docks and parking spaces.

Honestly, I am having so much fun with all of this, even if alley docking makes me want to pull my hair out sometimes. I live in jeans and t-shirts and my ancient Docs, I have dirt under my fingernails. The feeling of doom, of creative depression, that I could barely ever shake off while employed in the news biz, is simply gone. I'm well aware that trucking is hard work with long hours, but I'm also pretty sure it's less stressful than working for assholes and writing crap I don't care about.

This is week six of a seven-week course. Next week, we go to the DMV and test. I am taking the following week off, then going down to Fontana, CA, for Werner training on Monday, April 14. The training will start with a two-day orientation at the company terminal. Then I will hang out in Fontana for a couple days (in a motel room paid for by the company) until they find me a trainer.

I will spend the next two months or so as an apprentice in someone else's truck. I requested that my trainer be female, which may prolong the time I have to wait around in Fontana, which is fine because the motel has internet and a pool. After apprenticing, I go home for five days. After that, I will be issued my own truck so I can hit the road for real.

I am excited and scared. Trying to take it day by day.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Consequence and heartache

I feel the weight of my own heart, my flawed and possibly misguided gypsy heart, too heavy right now, the magnitude of my decisions dragging like an anchor.

Several days ago I had a crisis of faith, where an evening of writer's block spurred on a full-blown attack of self-doubt - the "Dear god, am I absolutely insane to have done this?" flavor of self-doubt. I've managed to avoid this flavor in any significant dosage so far, which is surprising, because it should theoretically, and according to many others, be my bread and butter these days. But this is when it caught up with me, halfway through truck school, in the airlock between where I've been and where I'm going.

In a grasp for assuredness, I called my future employer the next day and set up my start date - April 14, a week after I finish school (more on this later). I made the call after getting home from class, and hung up the phone in the stillness of the afternoon, alone in the house, and sat listening to my own breath for a few minutes. Then I went out and scrubbed my car clean, and went grocery shopping to fill my mind with the home-cooked meals I will no longer be able to make on the road.

Walked out of the store in twilight, gulping down the promises of springtime air. In the softness of gathering dark I could feel my heart breaking; worse yet, I could feel someone else's heart breaking along with mine, and I dreaded telling him the finality of my departure date.

The actual in-person breaking of news was too painful to discuss. In the quiet following the tears, I can feel the weight gathering around me, and I know it's here to stay. There are consequences of falling in love with a gypsy heart. Please forgive me for breaking yours along with my own.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Why wooden sticks do not make for effective fuel gauges.

The school truck ran out of fuel today, way out in the country like a campy B-grade horror flick. Ever since late last week or so, my classmates and I have been eyeing the fuel gauge cautiously each time we turned on the truck and telling our instructor that maybe we should get some fuel sometime soon since the needle keeps dipping further and further below E.

In response, the crotchety old man instructor would grab a wooden stick or tree branch, hobble over to the tank, dip the stick into it, and show us we didn't really need fuel because the stick had come up wet with diesel. Then he'd throw the torch-in-the-making away and we'd be on our merry way.

I was the last to drive today, after both my classmates eyed the fuel gauge and asked if the instructor was sure we didn't need more fuel. Driving through the country, orchard trees bare next to lots housing rusty machinery, the gas pedal just got more and more sluggish. My foot had to hit the floor before the engine even responded.

Somehow me made it to a fuel station, where we had to wait for the campus manager to come meet us so we could put 230 gallons (!!!) of diesel on the school's fuel card. There was a rusty old boat sitting on the ground on top of a hill by the station, possibly waiting for the valley to flood. Over the fence, black cows grazed on rich springtime grass. The wind blowing through, dust gritty on my teeth. The instructor standing next to the pump scratching his head, saying, "I thought we had more fuel in there. Guess I was wrong."

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The lesson behind the dust cloud

The wind picks while we're standing at the side of the truck yard, smoking and talking before class starts. The wind blows in the same direction as the highway goes, just there over the fence from the yard, southward. It picks up the dust, all the fine dust that turns to mud in the rain, spins it until it looks like a sand storm then sends it blowing in our direction. We duck behind cars until it passes, trying not to laugh as we shield our eyes and mouths.

I watch it pass and I wonder how I can ever quantify the lessons I've learned from wind and dust in my face. It is spring now, the air is fresh even when carrying dust and full of that intangible possibility not yet bogged down by the realities of summer heat. Last year around this time, I was skating with the wind in my face on broken asphalt, falling and getting back up again and again, the wind blowing soft through that park with fog rolling into the nearby soccer fields. Two years ago, I felt my own mortality pulsing around me in a gravel lot in New Mexico, desert wind washing me clean.

"You are alive," the wind tells me as it blows past on its way to other lands. And I hear it, I hear it, and laugh with a mouthful of dust.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Hardly working

I got a letter today from Werner Enterprises, a nationwide trucking company that's pretty much my top choice for post-truck-school employment, telling me that my pre-application has been pre-approved. This means I have a job waiting for me provided I can pass the Cali commercial driver's license test. The job in question would have me gallivanting all over the United States and Canada in a big ol' truck.

Here's the part that gets me: the minimum wage for a first-year long haul Werner driver is exactly the same as what I used to make at The Wreck (the newspaper where I worked before enrolling in truck school). And Werner's wages are actually lower on the scale than some other companies, though I have my reasons for preferring them, and chances are that I'll make more than the minimum amount, depending on how much gallivanting I want to do.

To put it a different way, I went to college for five years, did several unpaid internships, then spent several years working my way up the ladder to get to The Wreck's salary bracket. Then I quit, enrolled in a six-week course, and at the end of it will make the same amount of money. I'm not sure whether to be amused, depressed, or both.

But hey, I got a job!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

More thoughts on respect

A continuation on my last post:

It's Friday and my classmates and I are taking turns at the wheel, lurching down the wide streets of the industrial side of town. J is driving, the instructor in the passenger seat, and S and I are in the back so we start talking. He tells me about growing up dirt poor in a wide spot in the road in central Cali, about getting into gangs just so he could get out of town, see Los Angeles, about getting out of gangs and working hard and buying a nice house so his kids have a better life.

He's had a job since he was 12, he says, and I say I've had a job since I was 14, because I have, because the middle class status for me was only based on education and vocabulary and industry, never economics -- I am an immigrant after all, which is something I forget sometimes when I get too wrapped up in What I'm Doing With My Life.

The longer we talk, the more I am tempted to just tell the truth about who I am and what I am doing here, so finally I say that I've been a news reporter for the past few years. S just looks at me hard and nods slowly. "You're going to write a book about this. I can feel it. It's going to be big," he says. Nods again, appreciatively. "Yeah, it all makes sense now. You're going to be sitting in your truck writing all night. I can't wait to read your book."

In that last post, I said that I feared I was "slumming." Let me clarify: I know that I'm not doing that, but I fear that my actions could be interpreted as slumming, and I want to avoid the inherent connotation of disrespect. This fear has now been dispelled: the first time I decide to open up about who I am to a classmate, I am rewarded with understanding and respect.

Reminder to self: have more faith, especially in the knowledge that you're doing the right thing. Respect begets respect.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The fine line of respect

I've been very conscious of class and privilege issues lately. Most of my classmates are blue collar guys, construction workers or similar, who are getting into trucking because they've lost their jobs, or have seen enough peers lose their jobs to know they need to diversify their skills and pick a more dependable industry. They are looking for local driving routes rather than long haul jobs because they have families who need them at home every night to watch the kids.

And I come in with my big words and my middle class adventuring bravado and say to anyone who'll ask that I'm here so I can get paid to travel. For me, this is a year or two off from my regular life. This is fun for me, I get to drive things and get dirt under my nails and feel like a tomboy kid again, but it's temporary and I know it, so I'm not stressing the finer points, not worrying if this will continue paying my mortgage in 10 or 15 years.

The reason I'm so conscious of these class differences is because I have a lot of respect for my classmates. They are good, honest people; many of them have been dealt very crappy hands in life; they've been humbled. And a part of me feels like I'm disrespecting them. I hate the connotation of disrespect in the word "slumming," but I can't help but feel like that's exactly what I'm doing. The trick, I suppose, it to keep all this this in mind and consciously avoid any possible disrespect.

The one other woman in my class is a construction worker; she once went to school to become a paralegal, but hated working in an office so much that she took a job shoveling cement to get out of it, and has been happy ever since. I wonder how many people she disappointed by going back, from the hard-won white collar back to dirty blue. I think of her story often, as a reminder that the most important thing is doing what feels right for yourself.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Ladies first

My driving instructor for the first few weeks, starting with today's disaster of a driving lesson, is a crotchety old man who's said to be one of the best instructors at the school. My classmates and I were all under the impression that our first day of field training would be spent inspecting the truck and otherwise tooling around. Instead, we did a short inspection and took turns driving the rig around the yard, hooking it up to trailers and learning to back up. "Ladies first," the instructor said, and handed me the key.

"Demoralizing" is a good way to describe the experience, or "humbling." It would have helped if I had EVER IN MY LIFE driven stick shift before. But I haven't, and the instructor had assumed we all had, so after another student and I stalled out a few times he backtracked and went back to basics - but not before yelling at me, "Why didn't you hit the clutch?" when I tried to brake and stalled out; "Because I didn't know I was supposed to," I replied, and stumbled out of the truck on shaky legs. Thankfully we're not leaving the truck yard until the end of the week. By then I hope to have a better grasp on this stuff.

But other than my first-day failure actually driving the thing, it was an incredible feeling to be up there in that tank of a vehicle, encased in thousands of pounds of steel, all high and seemingly invincible.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Woman on the road

Turns out my classroom instructor (the person teaching my class all we need to know about getting a learners permit, not the actual driving instructor) was the first woman to drive trailers full of rocket launchers for NASA.

Here's her story: she was studying photography in college in San Francisco 30 years ago, then decided to take some time off school to earn some tuition money. Landed a job driving a van for a company that also had some trucks hauling hazmats. Got into the cab on a dare from one of the truck drivers who said something about women not being able to drive trucks, and ended up driving for the next 15 years, hauling things like tanks and explosives, sometimes gone from home for more than a year straight.

One day, she and three others drivers showed up in Cape Canaveral as a convoy to pick up some NASA rocket launchers. The dispatcher told them women were not allowed to drive. Several hours and a lot of hell-raising later, she broke that rule once and for all.

The one other woman in my class (who works for a local construction company and wants a CDL in order to haul rock and cement) was enraged by this story. "Man, I would have clocked him right then and there," she said. "Well," the instructor replied, "it's because I didn't react that way and instead just got the job done back then, that you can have that reaction and you can work in construction with no problems now."

After class, I tell her my reasons for being in truck school, and she tells me some of her own story, about taking her cameras on year-long jaunts around the country and about being one of the only women on the road all those years ago, and confirms for me that this is absolutely the perfect place for me right now in my life. She says the road will show me better than anything else just what it is that I am meant to write.

I had assumed most of my class would be there to learn about long-hauling it, but instead most of them have families they can't leave and are dead-set on doing local work. I express my surprise at this, and she sighs and talks about how the wives of many new truckers have never left their hometowns and are afraid of their men doing so and generally being terrified of being on their own, as a result calling their faraway husbands when a pipe breaks in the house instead of just calling a plumber. "I want to start a class just for these women, to teach them how to take care of their own lives," she says.

The rain has cleared by the time I walk out of the classroom, an hour after everyone else had left. The yard is quiet; it smells like mud and grease and possibility. I can feel my life, full of highs and lows and twists and turns, stretch out before me like a mighty interstate highway.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Truck school observations, Chapter 1

I am surprised to see several women in the room when I walk into the truck school orientation. (Classes don't officially start until Monday, but tonight they hand out paperwork and tell us what to expect from the next seven weeks.) But it only takes a second to realize that these women are wives the actual students have brought along for the open orientation session. One of them hangs on to her husband's arm the entire time; she is small like a bird, dressed in spike heels and a frilly skirt, long earrings dangling past her shoulders and partially covered by long, meticulously styled hair. Later on, the instructor uses her as an example of what not to wear to class; everyone laughs and she says, "Good thing I'm not a student here."

I sit next to a couple around my age. The husband has all the papers spread out in front of him; the wife is playing with his school-issued pens. When the sign-up sheet is passed around, he signs it and turns to hand it to the guy behind him; when I reach for it he gives me a surprised look and says he didn't think I was a student. I can feel my lip curling and my shoulders squaring, my body trying to instinctively distance itself from every other woman in the room. When the instructor says long hair must be tied back while working on the trucks and the class laughs at the bird-like wife, I pull mine back in an angry ponytail.

This is what it will be like, I tell myself. Many of these guys will not take me seriously, I will need to prove myself on a daily basis. It's a damn good thing I enjoy having something to prove.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

I keep my visions to myself

I have this vision of myself that's helping me get through the last hectic days at this awful job. I am lying awake in the cabin of a truck, reading poetry by the light of a camping lantern. I'm in the middle of nowhere and it's dark outside, the kind of darkness you only get far from cities, Kerouac's Sad American Night, only a small truck stop's weak neon light competing with the stars. Maybe I am in the desert, and the cool night breeze whispers against my skin through the open truck window. I can hear the highway and it beats along with my own heart. I am reading Bukowski, maybe Ginsberg, alternating between the book and my journal, where I scribble soft night words which scatter into the dust and the stars as soon as they leave my pen.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Apples, trees, falling.

These were my dad's reactions, in order, when I told him I had quit my job and was going to trucking school. (Mind you, he knew about the idea and mildly supported it before.)

1. "Well, it sounds like you're in a place of stagnation at the paper, so I support the fact that you're getting out and learning new things. Remaining in motion is the most important thing. Moving and learning are what life is all about. I'm not sure if this is the right direction for you, but I am glad you will be in motion again."

2. "I keep seeing those huge trucks all over New York and they amaze me, especially in Manhattan, where the drivers somehow manage to maneuver them perfectly into tiny alleys. Such level of skill looks almost like circus tricks. If you and your truck ever make it to New York, will you teach me how to do that?"

3. "You know, in all the old books the adventurous young people who want to escape their lives go work on ships and sail the high seas. I suppose this is the modern equivalent, and I support the motivation behind it."

Have I mentioned lately how much my dad rocks?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

First post, all about catching up.

In the winter of 2008, I quit a newspaper reporter job in order to go to trucking school. I plan to spend the next year or so of my life on the road as a long haul truck driver, learning and growing and not doing what I'm told.

Such a lifestyle choice may seem odd for a college educated woman in her mid-20s, but the idea had been bouncing around my head for over a year, ever since I wrote a news a story about a local truck school. With each demotion and blow to my pride delivered by my former employer, I thought, "This sucks. I just want to quit the rat race and become a trucker." Finally, I did just that.

I've been a traveler all my life. I was born in Moscow, Russia; immigrated with my family to Baltimore, MD, at the age of 10; after college moved to Washington, DC, for a job; then to rural North Carolina for a job; then to northern California for another job - the one I left in February, lured by the whispered promises of open roads.

What follows is the entry I wrote in my personal blog about the conversation that started this whole thing. It is dated Jan. 11, 2007.

I am interviewing the president of a trucking school for a business story. I am sitting in the office listening to stories about trucking, about the road, about the hectic schedules that are somehow worth it for seeing the country, about the high numbers of professional people who quit their jobs as teachers and office drones to get behind the wheel of a big rig and leave everything behind in a cloud of dust and exhaust. And I am feeling the familiar wanderlust flooding my system, like a bird forcing its way through my veins, feathers straining thin membrane, something bursting inside.

I have an idea. An idea for a book. I want to drive a truck. For, I don't know, six months to a year? And write about it. A Ted Conover type book, first person immersion journalism with a good dose of social responsibility, fueled by an insatiable need to see everything and peppered with Kerouac quotes and American road-lore, supported by studies of the economic and environmental impacts of this industry, told from a female point of view about a stereotypically male world.

I am completely fucking serious.