Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Art of Truck Driving 2

Last week I wrote about trucking boot camp and it got quite a lively discussion going on facebook. It seems lots of people are interested in the trucking life, or think it's a crazy thing to do.
We drove all over the Lower 48 and Canada for 2 years, it was a fascinating experience. We met some of the nicest people around, we went to areas of the country that take your breath away with it's loveliness and we went to places I never want to see again.
I gained a great respect, and a different perspective, of the truckers themselves. I was your average ignorant four-wheeler when it came to trucks, their drivers or their lifestyle before I started driving a big rig myself.
I discovered drivers are grossly underrated, stereotyped and deserve more respect from the general public for their skill, humour and poorly paid professionalism. There certainly are any number of bad eggs but there are just as many, if not more, bad eggs who are lawyers, doctors or Wall Street moguls.
Much to my surprise trucking is a total equality job. I was trained the same, paid the same and treated the same as my male counterparts. When I pulled in to truck stop to refuel and opened the hood to check the insides of the engine - you have to learn every single part of a truck engine and name them ALL to pass the driver's license - or I crawled beneath the trailer to check couplings, other drivers never offered to help "the little woman." They would usually just say something like, "Good morning driver, which way you headed?"
So, to all the ladies, especially the little girls who got so excited, who cheered and waved encouragement when they saw a woman driver - you can go and have one of the great adventures of your life. It's just fine.
When I say we saw the country, I mean we saw it. Over the 2 years we travelled more than 500,000 miles, on interstates and small country roads, through all kinds of weather and traffic. We trundled through Texas - does it ever end? We admired the Teutonic neatness of Wisconsin. The tangled spaghetti of freeways in St. Louis, Mo., got us confused and the sheer cliff one descends near Laramie, Wyo., was nerve wrecking. And that long, long steep climb down in Montana. It's so steep you have to stop at the top and check your brakes and read the instructions for descent. There is the Grapevine in Southern California truckers talk about in hushed tones. And the "She Bear" who terrified us all with her strictness in the towering mountain passes through the Cascades in Oregon. From the raw vast beauty of North Eastern Oregon and Washington State, the Colorado River Gorge, the beauty of the desert in Nevada to the flat emptiness of Oklahoma, on to the densely crowded East Coast or over the bridge at Detroit in to Canada - we discovered America.
But, I am getting ahead of myself ... before all this we had to get our commercial drivers licenses. We passed the first company driving test in Fontana, Calif., and in November we went to Bradford in upstate Pennsylvania on the border of New York near the Great Lakes to drive with our training engineer This was to prepare us for life on the road and to ensure we passed our CDL. We arrived thinking it would be the usual orange company truck but discovered our engineer had the biggest truck in the fleet - an old fashioned monster. The green meanie.
We drove her through tiny Amish settlements with buggies all around us, had to get through tiny little towns with narrow streets and cope with tiny East Coast rest stops. All in the green monster. I nearly had heart failure on an hourly basis. She was huge but remarkably easy to drive once we got used to her.
Our trainer, Lou, was a delightful soul with a quiet sense of humour. If I were to draw a cartoon or a caricature of a trucker - he would fit the bill. Shortish, large stomach, grey beard who always wore denim bib dungarees and a baseball hat. He told tall tales with panache and we enjoyed being with him.
Bradford is a small town 'famous' as the home of the factory of Zippo lighters. To relax on our day off we toured the factory and had a good meal in a delightful restaurant in a converted Carnegie library. We only had the one day off in the 3 weeks. Other than those 2 places I have no recollection of Bradford at all. Must have been the fear factor!
We headed home to Nevada to do our final state test. And we both failed. We passed the eye test, we passed the naming every part of the engine test but no one had taught us how to serpentine backwards without hitting a single cone. It's required in only 2 states out of the whole 50 - Nevada and Arizona. So back to Fontana in Southern California we went and a couple of our old instructors worked with us to learn how to do this. They had never done it either! But they enjoyed the challenge as a break from their new students.
One night during our time working this problem out, the instructors decided it would be fun to go practice at the LAPD skid pad. "It's really good experience for you," they happily said. If you've ever been in a bad skid on the road or on a skid pad in a car, you know how scary it is. I can testify that in a rig it's the most terrifying thing. We had to do it 3 times. In a rig.
You drive up to the pad and launch on to it, you have to be doing 40 mph, then whenever the instructor feels like it he hits the hidden brake by his seat. And off you go in a horrid skid. The first time out I screamed so loud they must've heard me in Phoenix. The crowd of trainees and instructors watching were falling about laughing, including Lee. He didn't laugh so much when he hit the skid pad next. The second time was better. By the third tride on the skid pad I was enjoying myself. That's when I thought, "I can do this." Or maybe it just proved I am certifiable.
We went back to Nevada, took the test again and both passed. The company rewarded us with a nearly new Freightliner to propel across the vastness of the USA.
Our first instructor, John, had told us, "Your training engineer and I can teach you 'til we're blue in the face, but believe me, nothing will teach you like your first couple of weeks on the road alone."

Boy, was he ever right!
Me and The Green Meanie in Bradford PA

Lou explaining to Lee how to do what he had trouble with - backing

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Art of Truck Driving

Back in 2000 I drove a big rig on the first day at the US Truck Driving School during rush hour traffic in Rialto, near San Bernardino, California. After wards, it took them about 2 hours to pry my fingers off the steering wheel.
"What the fuck am I doing?" I yelled to myself as I realized I'd gotten in to one of those, "well, it seemed a good idea at the time," heart-sinking moments. Only this time I didn't have a hangover.
It all started with a simple concept. Lee & I decided it'd be an adventure, and great fun, to haul freight all over the Lower 48 and Canada for the biggest trucking company in the nation.
We just had to learn to drive a truck.
Next thing I knew, I sat drenched in sweaty fear, in charge of an extremely large truck in dense Southern Californian traffic. I believe it's called a blast of reality.
Somehow or other, after a couple of days, my competence improved. Marginally.
One of my minor hitches proved to be getting the 450 hp truck up to a respectable speed. Ants overtook us as we watched the grass grown on the sidewalk.
John McDonald, my long-suffering driving instructor nagged me constantly in his slow Alabama drawl, "Anne, you gotta go a little faster.:
Bravado took over and I pushed down on the throttle - straight in to the arms of a red light. Instinct took over and I slammed on the brakes. The cars around me were enveloped in thick smoke from my locked wheels. One joker lent out his widow coughing loudly in my direction.
"You shouldn'tta done that," was the laconic comment from McDonald as he got back in his seat. Come to think of it, he said that quite often.
"Yes, but rather effective, don't you think?" I snapped.
"If it'd been raining, you'd be jack-knifed," he shot back. "Yessirree."
McDonald thrived on having the last word.
He is also a brave man. I believe this because he took me through the excitment of the freeway tango. It goes like this.
I take the truck down on to the freeway, cruise up to 55 mph then race off the next exit and immediately tear back down on to the freeway. It's teaches you how to get with the traffic flow. I rather enjoyed the freeway driving. It was the street traffic that scared the wits out of me.
Lee and I were not alone. We'd joined 27 colourful characters at the truck driving school for 11 days of intensive instruction.
People from every walk of life sat in that room - like multilingual Lee with a master degree to independent Audra, a pizza delivery lady with lots of silver in her nose and ears. There was Bryce, well, Bryce is Bryce with his tattoos, rude T-shirts and a big, soft heart. And we all bonded without a hitch as we faced the prospect of driving a big rig.
Each day we re-enacted High Noon as the class stepped out into the dusty parking lot and faced the trucks lined up on the opposite side. You could almost hear the twanging guitar in the background. I drove truck 359 and hauled trailer 4585. Numbers indelibly etched on my brain.
We ground gears trying to double clutch our way through the 10 gears. The intricacies of air brakes and power divider started to make sense. Squashing orange cones became the norm while learning to back and wiggle in to docking spaces.
Heart failure was a common occurrence, for us and the anonymous driver of the car waiting at the light as we cut corners too tight. Backing, coupling and uncoupling trailers, pre-trip and post-trip inspections of the tractor and trailer became part of every day life.
During class time we did fun things like trip planning exercises. Less interesting is learning the endless federal rules and regulations.
Did we have fun?
You bet!
We had to pass a test for graduating. How I passed I have no idea. Perhaps it was my explanation to the examiner on my way out to his truck.
"You need to understand something. I'm British and when I'm tense and under pressure I revert to my own language. If I tell you I'm checking the petrol with a torch, don't run away in blind panic. I actually mean checking fuel with a flashlight."
He probably decided on the easier route - pass this crazy lady and get as far away as possible from her.
We both passed and then had to head out on 3-weeks over the road training with a trainer before going for our commercial license.
But that, as they say, is a WHOLE 'nother story.  
Instructor John McDonald watches one of us has another go at the orange cones during boot camp.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Art of Ideas

It's a snowy day and the winter landscape looks lovely. I am a little sniffly and under the weather with a flu bug... taking lots of rest, hot tea and aspirin.  So I will not be venturing out in to the snow to see the lovely sights. But it's a perfect lead in for a plug for my latest art trails article in the travel ezine American Roads.... it takes you to the sun!!   Enjoy
and let me know what you think! 

I am working on a couple of new ideas. I should know quite soon if they'll work or not. Sigh, Always trying something new. Well, it sounds aslightly better than a bad case of ADD. 

To cheer you up, here's a lovely cardinal visiting our feeder. The birds are flocking to it now the food supply has dimished since autumn. We get a steady stream of sparrows, cardinals, blue jays, gnat catchers, nuthachers and some I have no idea what they are even though I frantically look them up in my bird book. The 6 feral cats next door also take lively interest which leads to some concern about terrority from my two princesses inside. It's all go on the wild life channel on our back porch. Who needs television?