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.