Saturday, August 28, 2010

Legal in Canada

A couple of uneventful runs passed by this week, and I was wondering what to write about. Perhaps I should devote a blog to how bizarrely complex the paperwork is, considering we live in an electronic age…and I will sometime because it is all truly odd but another issue overtook the mental ramblings in the end and that is the insane hours truckers are expected to work. I don’t think of myself as lazy, but yesterday’s 16 hours seemed excessive, even if it is legal in Canada.

The rules go; you can work for a shift of 14 hours at a time, so long as only 11 of those hours are actual driving. In the US that is. Over here, 13 hours out of 14 can be behind the wheel. In effect, what with loading, unloading, vehicle checking, strapping things down and fuelling etc, it’s not easy to drive for 13 out of 14 hours, which is just as well, one needs to get out and jog round the truck from time to time just to keep the blood pressure up.

However, in Canada, you can extend your work shift to 16 hours if you take 2 hours off for rest sometime during the day. Or, you can pretend to. This is how the day went…

I got back to dispatch on Thursday at about 4 in the afternoon. I was quietly hoping there would be no work for me on Friday, quite often there isn’t. I’d been up since 4 that morning, just the 12 hour shift, and wanted a decent night’s sleep.
“There’s a load for you leaving at 2 in the morning.”
“What? I can’t do that, I need to sleep.”
“There’s no-one else, and your log finished at 3, so you can drive from 1, you’ll have had your 10 hours.”
“Legally, but not really. I’ll not get home til 5, I need to do laundry, sort out the cats, buy food…”
“That’s trucking.” My dispatcher says that a lot. It makes him feel clever.

They called the customer and got a delay on the delivery time, so that I could start 2 hours later. Gee, thanks. I dashed home, showered, made an omelette I didn’t really want, ate half of it and headed for bed about 7, to try and get some sleep before getting up at 3 in the morning to start driving again at 4.

It wasn’t a bad start to the day. I’d pushed the start round to after the 3 in the morning dip that everyone gets, and only drove a couple of hours in the dark. I always perk up when dawn begins and it turned into a happy enough drive to the same suburb of Detroit I’d been to last week. The one with the nice guards, the handy loos and the easy docks. Knowing where I’m going does help significantly with the anxiety levels, I found it, parked up an hour early and looked forward to a nice drive back in the daylight. I called despatch when I was unloaded and they sent through a drive round Detroit to a more northerly suburb to collect a load to return with. Excellent. Half an hour to the next customer, an hour to load, on the way home by 11 in the morning, an early finish. I looked the new place up on the map, plugged it into the GPS, decided I liked the route the GPS had chosen and set off.

Of course, some familiarity with Detroit would have helped. The route Betsy selected for me took us around a ringroad that wasn’t quite a freeway, it had lots of lights, lots of traffic and lots of road works. Lanes were coned off and shifted about here there and everywhere, cars and bikes were weaving in and out around me and the drive got a little stressful. All of a sudden the satellite went off and started making urgent beeping noises. We’re not supposed to read messages while driving so I left it. Then my cellphone went off as well, someone wanted me urgently. I picked up the message at a set of lights (still illegal but at least I was stopped) they had changed their minds, someone else was going to the customer they’d sent me to and could I pull in and call for a new assignment. Well the short answer was, no I couldn’t pull in. I was in the middle of Detroit in road works. You can’t just park a truck, it’s illegal and dangerous.

The only way I could stop was to find the nearest freeway, head out of town until the traffic thinned a little and pull onto the shoulder of an off-ramp. It’s still illegal but less dangerous. Michigan police patrol the roads very efficiently, I wouldn’t have long but I pulled over a junction past someone broken down with a patrol car in attendance, hoping their attention would be held by the ‘bear bait’ for a minute or two.

I had no idea where the new destination was, no time to look it up properly, so I punched it into Betsy with fingers crossed, she may not take me the best way round but at least she’d get me there. Of course, first I had to turn round and go back the way I’d come, and I’d driven quite a long way out of town to find a stopping place, so I was looking at another hour at least.

I don’t think, judging by the number of ‘Michigan turnarounds’ I ended up performing, that I took the optimal route. But perhaps it was a classic case of ‘if I were you I wouldn’t start from here’. The Michigan turnaround is an over-complicated way of turning left, that involves driving past the turning you need, taking a filter lane into a small u-turn crossing in the median, coming back the way you came and turning right instead. It’s not so hard in a car. Most of the little u-bends are built so that trucks can just about make it round but you have to be spot-on, remember to take up a lane and a half to start with and ‘bend the traffic’ as you complete the turn. All very well when you know where you’re going, but lost, late, sweating and trying to quell the panic, they are no fun at all.

I found the new shipper just as they went to lunch. There were two trucks in front of me waiting to be loaded. It wasn’t going to be quick, although in a way that helped me with backing into the dock. It was a setup where the docks are under cover, which means that although the yellow reflective marks which delineate the dock edges are there, you can’t actually see them until you are under the roof. When it’s too late to use them.

I called despatch.
“I’m waiting for them to finish lunch and load 2 trucks in front of me, it’ll be at least an hour.”
“That’s ok, we don’t need the load back until 9 tonight.”
“But if I don’t leave by 1 I’ll be out of hours, I started at 4.”
“You gain 2 hours when you cross the border, cross at Sarnia, you’re only an hour away, then you can drive 2 hours longer.”
“I can drive for longer but my shift won’t extend unless I take 2 hours off.”
“That’s trucking.”

In the end I left at 1.30. I could just make it if I made no stops and had no delays at the border. But Detroit had other plans for me. Betsy directed me, via another half-dozen Michigan turnarounds, to the freeway which would take me to Interstate 94 and the border. Road works had closed the ramp from one road to the other, and tiny orange detour signs funnelled everybody off onto a small local road to pick up the Interstate about 10 miles further north. It took an hour and a half to get round the detour and onto the Interstate. By which time the Friday afternoon tourist traffic had piled up heading for the border. I finally crossed into Canada at 4 in the afternoon, with two and a half hours driving to get home, and only two hours left in my shift.

Fortunately I’d wasted so much time driving round in circles in Detroit that I could rewrite my driving log and pretend that I had had two hours off in the middle of the day without making my driving hours conflict with the distance driven. Thus, suddenly, a 16 hour shift became legal because I’d crossed the border.

I delivered the load at 6.30, drove back to the yard, dropped the empty trailer, parked the tractor, finished off my paperwork and delivered it all to dispatch at 8 in the evening, having started work at 4 that morning. Maybe I’d have felt better if that mythical 2 hour snooze had been real. This is in no way remarkable, it’s the standard expectation. Now, I’m doing this for fun, out of interest, because I can and until something better crops up or the book is finished (whichever happens first) and I’ll survive it if I can and stop if it looks like my health can’t take it…but people do this for a lifetime’s work. These people work bloody hard and think nothing of it. I’m tired and I’m in awe. Off for a nap.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A trip of two halves

Finding a place for the first time only happens once. So some stuff will get easier as time goes by. When dispatch called to ask if I’d go out on Friday night it was by way of asking a favour, Linamar’s drivers appear to expect to have their weekends off. I could do with the Brownie points though and it didn’t sound too bad a run, drive over to some suburb of Detroit, sleep, deliver in the morning, collect a new load at lunchtime and be home before dark. Ok then. 

Then of course I thought it over. There are no truckstops or rest areas in Detroit. I called the company and asked whether they had any areas I could sleep. “Oh yes” the lady in the office told me, “just ask the guard, he’s very good, he’ll show you where to park.” I am realising that most of the anxiety around finding new places has less to do with getting lost than it does with not knowing where you will sleep.

I found this one after a minor panic trying to read unlit road signs on a small trading estate in the dark and the lady had been as good as her word. The guard at the gate was charming, directed me to a big ‘holding pen’ for deliveries that was easy to get into, easy to park in and easy to get out of. He showed me where the ladies’ loo was. Luxury. It was about 1 in the morning.
“What are you delivering?”
“Empty cartons, they’re due in at 8:00.”
“They get in at 5, they might unload you then.”
“I’d rather sleep until 8.”

I settled in for the night. I’m starting to sleep quite well in the cab. As you can see from the pic it’s a ‘bungalow’ with only one bunk level. I thought this might make for a bit of claustrophobia as the windows tend to be on the upper level of two-story cabs, so mine doesn’t have any. But once I’m locked in and curtained off it’s positively snug. Either that or I am so dog-tired that I’d sleep anywhere.

At 5 in the morning there was a hammering on the door. I peered blearily out of the window.
“What are you delivering?”
“Empty cartons.”
“They won’t be unloaded until 8.”

Apart from that minor annoyance it was a great place to deliver to. The icing on cake turned out to be big wide easy docks with loads of space in between, masses of turning room and yellow lines on the ground that were freshly painted and easy to see. Most warehouse docks have them, they make it easier to line the wheels up, but most are so faded and old they may as well not be there. I was offloaded by 9 and had been given permission to spend the next few hours back in their holding pen before setting off for my 1:30 pickup down the road. This was turning into a good day.

Things took a downward turn at the next customer, a small foundry in a more cluttered part of town. I arrived carefully early, assuming that most people who work on Saturdays want to get home as soon as they can. Oh dear, blind-side reversing off the road, this was going to be fun. The shipping office was empty. I ambled about a bit, looking for someone to wave at. Eventually I found a forklift driver who said he knew nothing about any shipments going out. He told me to back onto any dock and he’d see what he could find out. I was going to have to do it, there was no-one around to laugh and I was early so I took a deep breath, scoped out the available space, pulled round and into a driveway on the opposite side of the road and somehow, bit by bit, managed to blind-side the trailer into an approximation of the right position.

With much getting out to check and plenty of toing and froing, I managed it. I was about a foot from perfectly docked when jobsworth of the day appeared.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m taking my time getting onto your dock sir, I’m very sorry if I’m in anyone’s way.”
“No, I mean why are you here?”
“I’m collecting a delivery for Hastech in Ontario.”
“That dock's are around the back. And you’re early. I’m not ready yet, I haven’t even started to sort it out. Why are you early? You should be here at 1:30”
“I’m sorry to be early sir, I didn’t mean to cause you any problems, I’m just very new and I didn’t want to get lost and be late. I have no wish to rush you sir, I can wait.”
He seemed slightly mollified by this and the body language became a little less antsy. 

He showed me a small, grubby map of the foundry and how to get to where I needed to be. Which was not only ‘around the back’ but down between two buildings, past a load of cars, around in a junkyard behind the foundry and into a tiny dock between two small walls. My time-consuming but beautiful blind-side manoeuvre had been pointless, and a sight easier than the next one was going to be. 

I continued to grovel. I told him that it would take me ages to get onto the dock so that I would most definitely not be early by then and that there was no need to alter his (clearly vital) schedule for the day. I am wondering how long I can keep up the hapless rookie routine, it seems to work wonders with inspiring assistance and cooperation from all and sundry. Jobsworth became positively helpful on the surface, although I do think he went for lunch anyway before getting anything ready to load. To be fair to the continent of North America, he is the first jobsworth I have encountered so far, they seem to be rarer here.

It took about 10 minutes in the end, to wiggle past the cars, turn avoiding the junk, miss the little walls and get approximated onto the dock. Then I looked at the way out. That was going to take some time too. I waited about an hour, calculating how late I could leave and still be home before dark. It was just about possible when I called the customs broker to see how fast they could expedite the border paperwork. “Our computer’s down, we’re going to have to walk it over physically, could you lose about an hour before you get there?”

Fortunately Detroit was being dug up that weekend and I was cleverly able to lose an hour and more driving round in circles trying to follow ever tinier diversion signs in rapidly diminishing visibility due to torrential rain. I was getting tired by then and wanted nothing more than to get home and start my Saturday. I decided to forgo a meal stop and head home as fast as I could as soon as the border was behind me, but the world had other ideas. More torrential rain, an accident closing off the highway and for the third time this week I found myself being diverted off the only road between the border and civilisation. The emergency detour route takes one on a charmingly pretty meander round farms and small Ontario towns. On a nice day, when you are not exhausted and desperate to get home it is probably lovely, but in the rain, after a day when you have done nothing but sweat and worry, and as the light is fading, it is pure torture.

I got back to Guelph about 9. It was still raining. Hastech happens to have a dock built at an annoying angle to the building. I can manage it in daylight.

Still tired.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Is it wrong to exploit the accent?

I’ve survived another trip, and the anxiety levels are decreasing slightly. As the list of things I’m not sure if I can do decreases and I relax a little more (for the most part of the day) everything fits into place better too. Being less exhausted before you start helps of course, and I seem to be getting a bit of my intelligence back now there’s room in my head for things other than blind panic. When the directions on my trip plan didn’t coincide with either the road signs or what Betsy wanted me to do (that voice on the gps has to have a name) what went through my head was “Ah, the directions must be from Southbound, not North and she’s trying to route me on a divided highway” which is a generally more helpful thought than “OMG OMG OMG I’m going to get lost!”

I have now approached and crossed the border at both of our usual crossing points enough times that I have lost the need to panic about diversions, paperwork and traffic. There are five main highway routes in and out of Detroit and I have found each of them from the Bridge without incident, and conversely found the Bridge from each coming the other way. Which means that the inevitable wait in a queue of other trucks to be processed has become a little rest, time to look around and think about the world, instead of time to be thinking “OMG OMG OMG, what have I forgotten?”

There are 7 or 8 commercial lanes usually open at the Windsor-Detroit border. That’s the crossing point that Michael Moore used in Bowling for Columbine, to see why people didn’t shoot each other so much in Canada. Windsor is a sleepy little town with one road leading to the bridge and lots of traffic lights and shopping plazas along the way. Detroit is, well, Detroit, with a tangle of Interstate connections, loads of construction work and diversions through deserted industrial wasteland; and panhandlers on every corner. The contrast is quite striking now that I’ve calmed down enough to look at it. The traffic is fairly manic, which unnerved me at first but I am learning now that the traffic is also used to masses of trucks, so has a pretty good idea of what you are going to need to do and how much space it takes up.

The 7 or 8 commercial lanes are generally full of trucks, lined up, waiting their turn to approach the border guards' booths. Everyone is quizzed. The questions vary but the intent is the same, to make sure you are who you say you are, going where you say you are going and carrying what you say you are carrying. With electronic pre-approval by customs, mostly they know the answers to all the questions they ask. They have on a screen in front of them who you are, what’s in the back and where you are going. But they expect you to tell them anyway. Allegedly, your demeanour while doing so will display suspicious signs if you are up to no good. Every so often the slow progression of trucks through the booths will come to a stop. A green light above a lane turns to red and the body language dance begins at the back of one of the trucks. Someone is being inspected. The trailer will have to be unsealed and opened. The driver must do this, observed by as many guards as can be spared to make sure he knows exactly how much trouble he is in. The uniforms don’t need the aggressive stance, the one person not in uniform may or may not have displayed the wrong sort of demeanour in his cab but is now moving in as passive a manner as he can possibly achieve. The hands still rest on gun holsters though. Just so you know. Sometimes they are sent on their way after a satisfactory search, sometimes they are sent for X-ray, sometimes (and this is what everyone dreads) they are turned back to their country of origin to start the customs paper trail all over again. This means someone’s freight will be very late.

That worry overlays the preparation for questioning every time. I am getting better at the ‘how to be ready’ routine; hat off, sunglasses off, light on in the cab, window down, papers and id card ready, turn off engine, don’t set brakes, make eye contact. And I even managed to remember where I was going and where I’d been the last couple of times, this is significant progress. I have been declaring my apples, but no-one else has wanted to see them. I think they just look for new and silly ways to rattle and annoy you, just so they can object to your demeanour while annoyed. My accent seems to upset some, they demand to know my citizenship. The first time this happened I told the truth…”British and Canadian.” This did not go down well. “You can only have one.” These are Yanks of course, it’s true for them. I go for the easy option now and tell them I am Canadian. This seems to satisfy, although of course my dual citizenship is flagged on my ID card. Go figure, as they say.

This trip went well. I think it has helped with a spot of optimism. I found the place I was looking for in Ohio in record time, was early, got onto the dock relatively untroubled and was loaded and ready to leave in good time to get home before dark. Famous last words. I called dispatch to let them know I was leaving.
“How much room do you have left in the trailer?”
“Lots, they only loaded 7 bins, about 40 feet.”
“We’ll find you something else to load on the way back, call in when you get to Michigan.”
This would be the first time I would have to find somewhere without printing off an emergency Googlemap as a backup for getting lost. I am trusting Betsy a bit more now but belt’nbraces makes me feel better. I dutifully set off, calculating how long my detour could take before I’d be parking in the dark again.

But despatch are good at what they do. My detour was on the way home, a suburb of Detroit. The nerves set in as I programmed Betsy to find it but she was a star and got me right there in record time. I still might make it home in daylight. Then I saw the dock. In a car park. It was a blind side reverse, I never did get any time to learn those with my trainer, she kept saying we’d work on it but then we rushed off somewhere else. And here, dear readers, just in case you still think I’m a bit intrepid, is where I let the side down on a massive scale.

A charming young man overheard my conversation with the shipper. “I love your accent,” he schmoozed. “What are you driving?” He looked at the highway cab which was too big for the carpark. “How’s your blind-side reversing?” I put on my best ‘Mary Poppins meets Maggie Thatcher’ voice, the one that makes everyone swoon over here and simpered disgustingly.
“Not very good I’m afraid, I’m rather new at this.”
“I’ll direct you in and show you how it’s done.”
“How lovely of you, thank you sir, you’re an angel.”
He smiled delightedly, I appeared to have made his day.

Now years ago I would have sent him off with a flea in his ear for daring to imagine that just because I was a woman my blind-side backing might be a bit suspect. Even though it was. But these days, now I’m an old lady, I’m just flattered that anyone would feel good about helping me and relieved that one more assignment worked out ok. I’ll have to reverse blind-side some day on my own, maybe I learned something from his instructions.

By the time I was trying to get back through Detroit I was trusting Betsy enough to take in my surroundings again. She directed me under and around the Breathe-Out Bridge and I knew we were nearly home. This bridge forms part of Interstate 94, which takes you out of Detroit to the west. It is formed from bright blue girders and roughly coincides with the traffic calming down and spreading out a bit. I didn’t realise it was the point at which I had been breathing out until my trainer said to me “I’ve never seen anyone hold their breath for the whole of Detroit before.” That was then though. I’m even breathing better this week.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sliding the bogies

Trip two of the solo enterprise and things are still a little mixed. On the upside, there would appear to be a conspiracy of silence around my small incident last week. I ‘fessed up to the dispatcher on duty at the time but he would appear to have decided to let it rest. So, on to the next thing. An easyish jaunt across Michigan to deliver some empty bins and pick up new ones filled with something autopartish. I’d been there before, the place is easy to find and has a helpful guard at the gate. What could go wrong?

The only issue was the timing, I was due to start at 4in the afternoon, pick up the bins at 5 and deliver at 8 the next morning. Now there is no way to do this legally because you have to have 10 hours off after 14 on duty, so a little massaging of the books was required. You only have to be ‘on duty’ if you are driving from one town to another, pootling about in the same area doesn’t count, so the convention is that you can start your log book after collecting the load, and then get to the destination, mark your log book off-duty and then deliver sometime during your 10 hours off. This does of course mean that you don’t get legal amounts of sleep and I’m not sure how I feel about that yet. Apart from tired. I’m learning the hard way that the industry pays a lot of lip service to ensuring that you get legal rest but actually turns a blind eye to the details.

Anyway, I picked up my paperwork and checked the vehicle over at 4, duly appeared at the plant round the corner at 5 and backed onto a dock. It took a few mins, but I managed it without hitting anything. I waited for the shipper to finish loading the trailer next to mine. Half an hour later I caught his attention. “Empty dunnage gets loaded at the other end of the building.” I dutifully drove round and backed into the new dock, next to a container I’d seen pull in ahead of me. I knew the delay wasn’t really a delay, since he was still waiting. An hour later we were both still waiting. I found a forklift driver and made polite enquiries, he had to have the paperwork sorted out first. Where should I do that? The office I’d first thought of at the other end of the building. I walked, it was quicker.

I finally got out of the plant at about 7. Then I had to take all the paperwork back to our office so that the details could be faxed to the customs brokers. Most border crossings are electronically pre-approved but the people who do that bit still require a fax to get the ball rolling.

I got moving for real about 7.30. I'd been on duty since 4, but my log began then, so that I could ‘work’ until 9.30 in the morning if necessary. I fully intended to sleep for part of the night but it would make my delivery time legal if the log happened to be inspected on the way.

Roadworks on the 401, a queue at the truckstop we fuel in, a wait at the border, it was dark and late and I was already knackered when I crossed into the US. Too tired to fully appreciate how much nicer and easier it is to negotiate the Bluewater Bridge crossing at Sarnia and Port Huron, when you are used to fighting the Ambassador to Detroit. It’s a straight road on and off, no wheeling around sharp bends to avoid badly marked road works. And it’s pretty too. I had very carefully packed fruit with labels on, and had bought US apples specially. But this one didn’t ask about fruit. He quizzed me for a while on my citizenship, what was in the trailer and where I was going, but no fruit related enquiries at all.

The gps showed that I’d get to Muskegon, Michigan about 2.30 in the morning but I wasn’t in any shape to drive there in one hit. My newly acquired pile of audio books from the library helped a lot, I thoroughly enjoyed the early parts of Going Postal, read by Stephen Briggs, complete with voices, but knew when I’d had enough. I stopped at about 1.30 in a rest stop an hour or so away. It made sense to sleep for a few hours, then get up at 6 and find the place in daylight. I could sleep again after I’d been loaded, rewrite my log to represent having been there all the time and be ready to leave after a metaphorical 10 hours off at about 1 in the afternoon.

The gatekeeper guard was helpful as ever. This place puts you on a scale on the way in and on the way out and has clear, logical paperwork. He pointed out where I could park to sleep and told me not to come back to the scale until I was ready to leave. Things were looking good. I backed onto the dock as directed. The receiver looked at the packing slip I handed him.
“You’ve got a mix, metal and plastic.”
“Yes,” I smiled.
We’ll unload the metal here, then you have to drive round the building to the other docks for the plastic. Then back here for the reload.”
My smile evaporated as I realised just how much longer it would be before I could lay down again.

I slept until 1, had a brisk rub down with a flurry of wetwipes and talc, change of clothes and I felt ready for anything. A seven hour drive back would mean that I would just get to the plant in daylight. I didn’t much fancy docking in the dark just yet. A coffee would have gone down well but I’ve not got around to buying a kettle for the truck yet. Back to the gate and onto the scale. They’d loaded 44,000 lbs, which is pretty close to the maximum allowed weight. I asked the guard to weigh each axle separately, which is a wise precaution when the load is that heavy. There are regulations about how much weight each axle should carry, as well as an overall maximum, and weigh scales along the interstates will check and fine the unwary. It’s as well we did the extra weigh-in, as one axle came out overweight. I had 1800 lbs too much on the drive wheels, and not enough on the rear. I sighed. I was going to have to ‘slide the bogies’ now, and that would mean digging out a text book to make sure I did it right. You get taught about it, but no-one really does it that much. The guard smiled at me. “You can pull up over there to do that, just make sure we can get another truck on the scale behind you.

I checked my books and made sure I was going to slide the rear wheels of the trailer the right way. The wheels had to go forward, to shift the weight in the trailer away from the front end. Three notches should do it. That meant moving the tractor backwards about  two and a half feet. I marked the distance out on the ground with a glove. I unlocked the slider bolts, set the trailer brake and attempted the shift. Nothing. The bugger wouldn’t budge. I checked the bolts, they were clear, it was just rusted together and seized. I tried pulling forwards and backwards again, to see if I could jolt it loose. Nothing. The guard came out to help. “This happens a lot” he said. Bogie sliding (I don’t have any idea where the slang comes from, must find out) isn’t something that gets routinely checked, like so many other bits of truck. He suggested a remedy they have used before, of sticking a bloody great lump of timber behind the wheels. It was a friendly gesture and I appreciated the moral support as I seemed to be unaccountably close to tears again. It didn’t work though. I called dispatch to tell them I was delayed by an equipment failure. They put me on to a trainer. “Have you tried dumping the suspension?” I hadn’t. I felt a fool, there was an aspect of doing this that I’d missed and I was just being a troublesome rookie. I dumped the suspension and tried again, but it was the trailer and not me, it was seized and that was that.

By this time I was pouring sweat from everywhere and doing another impression of Pigpen. Which helped to mask the teary eyes. The guard and I came to the same conclusion, I’d have to go round the block, back onto the dock and get them to reload the trailer with more weight on the back. I watched my daylight arrival back in Guelph disappear as time went by. He called the shippers and told them I was coming back. He showed me the quickest way to turn around and said they’d reweigh the axles when I came back. His name is Lonny and he is an angel in human form.

The forklift driver was grumpy. “I always load that way.”
“I know, it’s not you, it’s my trailer, the wheels won’t slide.”
“I wish someone would tell my boss that, he thinks I did it wrong.”
“I’m so sorry about that, I’ll tell him, where is he?”
“It’s ok.” He seemed mollified by my contrition. Or maybe the accent. I decided to capitalise…
“Thank you so much for your time, I know you’re busy, but it will get me out of here…”
He smiled. Maybe people aren’t usually nice to forklift drivers.

I got out of there at about 2.30. I was tired, hungry and fed up. Going Postal helped a bit but not much. I opted to ‘hammer down’ and get home as fast as I could instead of stopping for coffee and food. My stomach has been playing up anyway the last few weeks; I’m not sure if it’s the unusual routine or the combination of anxiety and fear, but I don’t seem to be able to eat much at all. I am surviving on trail mix and peanut butter sandwiches. And apples. That’s probably not a good thing long term.

I breezed through the border this time, no stupid questions at all, treated myself to a coffee while fuelling up an hour from home and arrived back at the Guelph plant just after sunset. Oh poo. One dock open between two other trailers. In the dark. It had to be done. It took about 10 minutes and a lot of getting out and looking but I got it there in the end. The load was safe, correct, the paperwork in order and I finally handed a complete envelope full of stuff back to dispatch at about 10 o’clock. I’d been away for two days but it felt like two weeks.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Curate's Egg

Day 2 and things are going well. Minnesota is very pretty in the daylight, not exactly hilly but undulating enough to make a change from flatness and dozens of different shades of green. My trucker-specific GPS (what a great investment that was) seems to know where we are going and I am on time.

The foundry my load of empty bins was destined for was visible from the end of the street, which made a change from all the tiny Linamar plants in Guelph, which need to be identified from a crappy little diagram to be found. It had a well marked one-way system and a place to park and go make enquiries. Deliveries were back out to the road, left and left again. Then round the block and back here to load the pickup.

I have been having a bit of a hard time retaining directions recently, a sign of an aging brain I assumed, so I repeated this out loud to hammer it in. Maybe it’s a stress thing though, or a ‘being assessed’ thing because it all stuck in my mind this time and round the block I went, found the delivery dock, waved at the receiver and waited where I was directed.

It took a minute or two to wiggle onto the dock, mainly because I’d been told to wait in a stupid place and had to pretty much drive out of the yard again to line up for it. But, I got there, nobody shouted, the bins were unstrapped, unloaded, paperwork signed and exchanged and it all seemed to be going according to plan. The reload was timed for 7 o’clock and I found myself driving back round the foundry at 6.30. I had already scoped out the loading dock and realised it would be an easy set-up and a straight reverse, so all of a sudden, shortly after 7 I had fulfilled the first part of this assignment, had all the border paperwork sorted out and was ready to head home. It had been a great deal less stressful and incident-filled than I had expected and my confidence was building.

I was determined not to get caught out for somewhere to sleep tonight so I had spent some of my waiting time looking at the route home. Chicago is chock full of toll roads and I had set the gps to avoid tolls yesterday as I’d seen huge queues of traffic at the tollbooths. I wondered if this had been the reason I’d hit so much traffic. Looking at the map quite carefully I realised that all the toll roads took you to the same spot in central Chicago where the traffic had been at its worst last night, it didn’t look as though that had been the problem. But there was a workaround. Interstate 39 South would take me to Interstate 80 East, bypassing Chicago completely, to the west and the south. It looked a little further but not far enough to take an extra couple of hours. An added bonus was a couple of rest areas to stop and overnight in. I could do what I did yesterday and pull into the first for a snack, decide if I was tired or not and drive on to the next to sleep if I felt like it. This would put me about 8 hours drive from home, which would be manageable the following day. I could stop between 11 and midnight, start again between 9 and 10 and be home by 7. Since the delivery could be up until 9 tomorrow evening I would be on time, possibly early.

All this went to plan. The diversion added about 30 kms to the total distance, but that took about 20 minutes, not several hours and I pulled into the second rest stop at 11.30 to sleep. The US has rest areas on all its Interstate roads. I love them. They are easy to pull into, easy to park in and easy to get out of. Some of them have toilet facilities and a few vending machines. I like overnighting in rest areas, you don’t get the facilities of a truckstop but because they are less social places what you do get is total anonymity. Lots of trucks parked up overnight, no-one knows this one has a lone female in it. I felt safe and I slept like a baby.

Day 3 went well too. I returned to the truckstop I’d found on the way over to refuel, topped up on coffee as well as diesel, breezed through customs with everything correct and nothing to declare and headed for home on target to arrive at 7. I sent my eta via the truck satellite with not a little smugness. My adventure was rapidly turning into a triumph and I was pretty damned pleased with myself. The only thing that went wrong on the way back was that my emergency peanut butter sandwich had got a bit wet and soggy in the cooler and wasn’t nice enough to eat. I didn’t want to stop again just to buy food, so made do with nibbling trail mix, I’d be home in time for a decent dinner.

I found the plant waiting for my truckload of metal castings, I’d remembered which one it was, where it was, where to wait, how to find the receiver and how to set up to back onto the dock. It was empty, hooray, no-one to rush for. I was tired by then and wanted a no-stress reverse. While I got the papers signed another truck pulled in behind me. Instant anxiety. The set up was complicated, a 90 degree back, with dumpsters and ditches where you’d normally want the front end to be. And a trailer to get past in one of the other docks. I screwed it up of course. The faster I tried to work the wronger it went. The more I tried to correct being too close to the trailer I was parking next to the closer to it I got. Yes, of course I hit it. The scratches on it weren’t too bad, I might have been tempted to pretend nothing had happened and someone else must have done it, but when I pulled off the dock to close my trailer doors I realised I had also bent the hinge on my own trailer door. It wouldn’t close. Bit of a giveaway.

Tired and miserable and defeated I drove back to the yard with one trailer door pinned back. There was an easy reverse to park it but I messed it up anyway and spent about half an hour trying to get it straight enough to leave. Forcing back the tears I took all my piles of perfect paperwork to despatch. ‘Do you want the good news or the bad news first?’

I will find out on Monday if I still have a job.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Anything To Declare?

Well, I’m somewhere north of Chicago, knackered and stressed but still in one piece. I decided to take yesterday one step at a time and not get anxious about the next thing until I got to it. This served me well right through sorting out the paperwork, checking over the truck, securing and sealing the load, fuelling up and getting over the border. So far so good. With the slight exception of a greengrocery-related bollocking at customs. When Canadian ossifers ask you ‘anything to declare?’ they would like to know if you are importing any alcohol, tobacco or firearms. The US counterpart asks the same question but he wants to know whether you are packing any fruit or vegetables. I declared my apple and my peach. He demanded that they be produced for inspection.

This took a few moments ferreting about in the cooler among the odds and ends of my packed lunches.
‘These don’t have labels on!’
‘I’m sorry, should they?’
‘All imported fruit must have a decal detailing country of origin.’
‘I didn’t know that sir, I do apologise.’
‘Next time it’ll be confiscated. Goodbye.’
And I was through, duly chastised for my fruit faux-pas, and left wondering whether I should be buying Canadian or US apples from now on.

I took my time and was on target to stop either just before Chicago at 9ish in the evening or just after Chicago at 11ish. I sat at the truckstop I’d selected to think about this in and reckoned that I had another couple of hours driving left in me and that Chicago might best be tacked for the first time at night, when there would be less traffic. My trusty GPS would guide me through, so I had a quick meal and pinpointed another truckstop that looked to be 2-3 hours further on.

A fine plan. That would leave me a mere 3 hours from my destination, which I could knock out late-morning and be in good time for my delivery slot. There was no point in being too early, as the reload wasn’t scheduled until 7 in the evening and I had to get some decent mileage back under my belt after that before my daily hours ran out. It’s all a bit complicated, this route planning, and of course the first time I was doing it solo. We think of truckers as uneducated oafs but blimey there’s a lot to consider. Not just the best way to get somewhere and how long it will take but how you will fit it into a 14 hour workday, making sure you drive for no more than 11 hours, and that a 10 hour rest can be fitted in before you start again, and you arrive on time.

My plan had a fatal flaw. Chicago is not quieter at night. It is a permanent traffic jam and took at least an hour and half longer to get through than I had imagined. This brought me perilously close to 11 hours driving and instant illegality. It was late and dark and I was exhausted, I needed to stop. Searching desperately for somewhere, anywhere, that it looked like trucks might be allowed to enter I finally found a small patch of parking lot that had a couple of trucks in. I swung in a little too fast and realised I had taken the wrong entrance, I would not be able to tuck in neatly beside them but could just about get myself out of everybody’s way if I pulled up into an area that looked like it was for turning round in. I made a rough job of straightening the truck, decided it would have to do and settled down for the night.

I’d like to be able to tell you that my first night on my own on the road was cozy and fun but actually it was a tad tiring. I had no idea where I was or whether I was allowed to park there, so I spent most of the night waiting for someone to hammer on the door yelling ‘you can’t park here’. I slept in my clothes, just in case of early-hours encounters and berated myself hourly for not going to sleep. When dawn broke I sneaked a look out of the window and realised that I was in the car park of a trucker’s breakfast stop and that rigs had been arriving and leaving without much trouble from me. I finally dozed off for a couple of hours.

Later in the morning the place was buzzing. Everybody gave me a cheery wave as I ambled by to see if any coffee could be had. The coffee was nice and the people friendly and nobody pointed out to me the sign that I had missed in the night…’Truckers welcome but please don’t sleep here.’
I suppose I’m not the first unwise soul to have been caught out.

Of course, I was in a horrendous position for getting out again. I was angled away from the road, with ditches and bollards on all sides. I would like to think I provided a spot of free breakfast entertainment as I wiggled and fretted about, to and fro, up and down, trying to get the trailer into a position where I could back it into the car park enough to turn back out onto the road. Who the hell in their right mind wants to do this for a living? But, I made it. I am up the road now at a proper truckstop, all parked up and availing myself of more coffee, pleasant facilities and shopping. Day 1 has been survived. I am in Wisconsin, a couple of hours from the company I need to find. All I have to do now is get there, get into the dock without incident, unstrap one load, strap up another, sort out the customs paperwork, find somewhere to refuel and get home. Possibly bypassing Chicago.

Ah well, one step at a time, I think I will clean the windscreen. I can do that.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bit of a milestone...

I was scheduled for a road test on Monday. I wasn’t terribly confident that I’d meet the ‘experienced driver’ benchmark required for freedom from trainers, mainly due to last week having had a depressing sense of one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back about it. In my defence, this was mainly due to a couple of dirty tricks that Dispatch chose to play on us by way of annoying trips. Not that I minded much, I find that smiling and doing as I am told helps with the stress levels, unless the other person in our confined space is fuming long and loud. 

Cincinnati was the crunch. They asked on Thursday if we would like to go Ohio as a change from Michigan. The run sounded ideal, heading south with enough time to get close to the customer before dark, take a legal 10 hours off, deliver at 10 in the morning. Plenty of time and daylight for a return load that should get us home by early afternoon on Friday.

Dispatch knew about the return load that couldn’t be picked up until 7 o’clock on Friday evening, they just didn’t tell us until we were over the border. Now this is a bit naughty, but then, if they’d said we’d not get home until 5 on Saturday morning we wouldn’t have said yes, would we? And I understand that everyone else is wise to this stunt now. Things were not improved much by the unwelcome discovery that Cincinnati has no truckstops. None. Somewhere to while away a day, mayhap a shower, a meal, some gentle shopping, might not have been so bad. As it was, we were stuck having to camp out in the shipper’s drive in the heat and humidity and badtemperedness of a day gone horribly wrong.

Suffice to say that if I never see Cincinnati again it will be too soon, and I was mightily surprised to pass Monday’s road test. I have been issued with a whole heap of plastic cards, for tollbooths, bridge crossings, diesel purchases and phone calls. I have been issued with another heap of paperwork and another heap of, well, stuff. Bolt cutters, logistics straps, trailer seals…but mainly I have been handed the keys to my very own truck. It’s a bit elderly, rookies get the crappiest stuff in case they bend it, but it is mine and it will be retired in a month or two anyway and I will be able to trade up a little.

I moved in today. It may be a bit noisy and bouncy and cramped, but it has one brilliantly endearing feature; nobody else occupies it too. The move in took hours. That is partly my fault for deciding to try and be a bit organised about where everything goes. It’s an old ambulance habit, I like to know exactly how to put my hands on every item before I head off anywhere, and the occupying of other people’s vehicles has driven me nuts with living out of bags and boxes. So, I am sort of settled in. Clothes here, food there, tools in handy places, torches, books, maps, chargers all neatly assembled. It will all change around of course, as I discover just how impractical the initial system is bound to be, but there is a system.

There were mutterings about sending me out on a run today as soon as I’d stowed my stuff but I decided to take my time, get some sleep and start tomorrow with a fresh mind. The elderly truck played into my hands (I am fond of it already) by requiring some servicing. I’m not sure who had it before me but it would appear that they hadn’t checked their brake adjustments or emptied their air tanks for an extremely long time, necessitating a bit of tinkering to make it safe and legal. A couple of round trips to the mechanic’s shop for this and that took up the afternoon nicely, and offered the additional bonus of a chance to ‘bobtail’ it around for a while, getting used to the gearbox before I have to haul anything with it. What with one thing and another I have been working in the heat and humidity all day and am feeling remarkably unstressed, untired and unfreaked out. Maybe not being shouted at does that.

My first solo run will be tomorrow, Wisconsin and back, a two day trip. Am I terrified? Um, yes


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Border guards and golf shirts

Two weeks of hard knocks and difficult lessons. Driving for the automotive industry after a spot of experience with a general freight company is a different kettle of fish altogether. (“A DIFFERENT KETTLE OF FISH”, I must be tired, lame Airplane jokes don’t generally feature in my blogs.)

A lot of the work is ‘less than load’; rounding up several shipments from a few suppliers in one region to bring back to different local plants. There is much checking that everything is loaded in the right order, and learning to secure stuff down so that it doesn’t shift about and get damaged on the way. There is learning to move the rear wheels of the trailer to and fro, and charging and dumping the trailer’s air suspension to account for the requirements of different shippers and their loading bays. In other words, a lot more actual physical graft. Clambering about, messing with straps and ratchets, getting grazed, bruised and dirty and ending the day looking faintly reminiscent of Pigpen (only without the little halo of flies, so far) was a lifestyle I associated with flatbed work, left behind when I finished training with Terry, but it’s back with a vengeance despite still driving ‘dry vans’.

Add in the strange places we have been required to visit and I can see why even seasoned drivers have to be oriented with a trainer for a while. Challenger tended to deliver sealed loads to large distribution warehouses on industrial estates on the edge of towns. Linamar collects and delivers at small manufacturing facilities down obscure turnings in city centres. With very tiny shipping and receiving areas in car parks. Full of cars. Driving a long way in a straight line is the easy bit…finding badly signposted factories in crowded side streets, working out how to get in and out of them, how to manoeuvre into the docks, how to correct someone’s paperwork so that there are no issues at the border and how to tell the forklift driver to arrange things in the trailer…all new headaches. I am heartily glad of my two weeks with a highway trainer and almost think I have got some of it.

The border is getting easier, which is one blessing. I have just about mastered the diversions around road works at both ends of the Ambassador Bridge, and am getting better at not forgetting my name and where I live when asked by customs to verify who I am. Since their records show that we have been crossing daily, with perfect paperwork, as time goes by the quizzing is getting a little gentler too. I am perfecting the right sort of polite obsequiousness that makes for a happy border guard… ‘yes sir’ and ‘no ma’am’ go down especially well, so I am learning to pop a ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ in as early in the conversation as possible. The dry-wipe marker trick is definitely helping though, I think I will continue with it for a long time yet. Then that awful moment when you realise you have forgotten where you are going doesn’t contribute to an outbreak of nervous sweating. 

My upper body strength is improving too. I can cut through a seal with one chomp of the bolt-cutters, ratchet down a strap to the exacting standards of my trainer and get the trailer doors closed in one swoop, instead of several minutes generally messing about with levers and handles. And looking like a pillock.

And speaking of looks, I have also learned a little more about being a woman on the road. It’s summer now you see. Back in the winter, when all truckers were bundled up in layers of fleece and woolly hats, no-one could tell from the outside who was driving. I got a sound ticking off from my trainer for wearing a v-necked stretchy T shirt, donned for comfort and ease of movement clambering in and out of the backs of trailers. One is required to look as androgynous as possible behind the wheel; it’s a safety precaution in a truck such as hers which is limited to slightly faster than average. Whether it will matter so much when I get my own truck and find out what speed it is limited to, only time will tell. The reasoning unravels thus…

All Ontario licensed trucks must have speed limiters fitted, so that they can’t exceed about 105Kmph, or 65 mph-ish over the border. The actual speed the limiter cuts in at can vary from vehicle to vehicle, and one that is limited to slightly over the average, as ours is, can be very useful. That extra 2 mph or so can make the difference between getting clear of truck traffic on the highways and sitting behind someone slightly slower than yourself without the acceleration to get past them. But, a chap in a slower truck does not like to be overtaken by a woman. Some of them can get quite snippy about it. It may be an accident of mechanics but that doesn’t ease the ego. Hence the wearing of baseball caps. With a cap over my eyes, hair tucked up into it, large sunglasses and a golf-shirt I can just about pass for anybody. I did think my trainer was being a little OTT about the whole thing until I left off the cap one day last week, due to being so hot that even my hair was sweating. Began to pass a truck just south of Toledo and he tried extremely hard to run us off the road.

I have been out to buy more golf shirts.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Did I say I was tired last week? Stupid woman that I am, there was worse to come. Admittedly though, there has been some beetling down the Interstate with the a/c on and the radio playing; there has been some wearing of the baseball cap and feeling like a real trucker, but mostly there has been Too Much Information.

More places to find, new procedures, a trainer who yells about details and then tells me that she is only being tough on me because I am good. She is pleased with my progress and thinks that I will be ready to roll solo in another week. I am glad she is pleased. In the world in my head, I should not still be getting confused when I’m stressed. I have driven across the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor, Ontario to Detroit, Michigan four times now. How come I am still lost trying to weave around the bollards which mark out temporary truck lanes during the construction work? How come, when the customs officer asks me a question, the answer escapes me? I have taken to writing down my destination on the windscreen with a dry-wipe marker so that I can get that one right in any and all circumstances, but I really ought to be able to remember where I live.

There is significant good news though. I can drive for 11 hours straight without collapsing. Since this is the US legal maximum I am minded to declare myself fit for purpose. I do know that the more familiar things become, the less befuddled by anxiety I will be. I have celebrated surviving week 1 of highway training with some shopping. A big cooler-fridge, for all the snacks and drinks required to keep one amused at the wheel. A natty little gadget to play mp3s from a usb memory stick through the truck radio…at the paltry cost of $9.00, this is a significant find as it means not needing an Ipod to carry radio 4 podcasts around; I can keep up with The Archers! The Ipod savings made me feel a bit better about the major outlay of bucks for a truckers’ GPS. I think it will pay for itself over and over in not-getting-lost time but actually sending off for it before earning any wages felt like a risky investment.

We are off, this afternoon, to a company we delivered to last week in Auburn, Indiana. I made a few notes about the location in the little book than never leaves my person and, surprise, surprise, when I read them and looked at the map I could remember the way and picture the building. I ran through it in the shower…’I94 to I69, exit 129 for Indiana road 8, turn left from the ramp, third lights after the rest of the 94, turn right. Entrance on the left, just past a big blind bend, wind round the building on lanes with huge boulders to stop you driving on the grass. Relatively easy set-up for a straight reverse on the dock.’

If I can recall everywhere we go after one visit (with notes) then some significant anxiety about my aging brain will dissipate over time. Maybe, with my trusty gps as well (OMG how do you install those?) I can do this after all. Just got to get that bridge sorted out within a week…