Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Twiglet moment

I said nothing went wrong so there was nothing to write about didn’t I? But something bizarre did happen. How could I forget? Nothing to do with driving, more a twiglet moment with regard to the passage of time and the smallness of the world.

I didn’t have time to dash to the library for more audio books and, as I think I’ve mentioned before, the wilds of North America between cities can throw up a dire lack of decent radio stations. I was fine through the extended urban sprawl that merges east from Toronto, plenty of news and talk, but as the night wore on the options became rather thin. I took to setting the radio to scan and checking each offering that wasn’t actually rapping at me for sources of interest.

And this is how I found, at about 1.30 in the morning, a programme called Coast to Coast, hosted by some weird bloke in Nevada. I must have picked up a station in New York that was broadcasting it. Coast to Coast specialises in investigating and discussing UFOs, life after death, government conspiracies and other unexplained phenomena. I settled in for a good giggle. And then I heard a name, followed by a voice, that took me back 35 years. They planned to interview, by phone, an author from England who had written a book about conspiracy theories. The book was Voodoo Histories and the author, one David Aaronovitch.

Now some of you will have been there back then. The Manchester University Students’ Union. We’d formed the Custard Appreciation Society for a bit of a laugh. We thought we might get some union funds for a properly constituted society, and then we could spend it on custard creams. I was the Trifle Secretary. But the laugh grew legs and the society got popular. There were humourless types within the union hierarchy who considered that the only acceptable point to being a student was holding meetings and having votes condemning political misdemeanours the world over. Suspicion was rife as to whether the Custard Appreciation Society was really a political front organisation for some subversively right-wing elements. Chief among the suspicious politicos, one Dave (I suppose David suits the now successful journalist better) Aaronovitch.

Perhaps if I’d not emigrated, I’d be used by now to someone I vaguely knew in university days being a relatively well-known pundit; but this was news to me. There I was, somewhere between Toronto and Montreal,driving an American icon, listening to the voice of someone I’d known 35 years ago in rainy old Manchester, being interviewed by some nutter in Nevada.

We’ve taken remarkably different paths to our 50s. I understand he is no longer a communist. Perhaps he made a better job of growing up than I did, although I haven’t made trifle for years. At least he has a proper job; while I muck about with big boys' toys. The weirdness of it all kept me pondering the passage of time and the changing of people all the rest of the way. I enjoyed the interview. I will buy his book, it sounds good. I might even send him a copy of mine when it’s written, after all he’ll be in it. And I have a sneaking suspicion that, over the years, he has developed a bit of a sense of humour.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

More changes

Well I was mulling over whether the less-than-load, auto parts delivery life was for me when the phone rang. It was ex-employer and much-beloved, adopted extended family member Bert. The same Bert whose limousine company kept us afloat in leaner times when we first moved to Canada. Some pals of his were short of an AZ driver for a run to Montreal, would I like to bobtail the 10th tractor? Of course I would. This appeared to be a foot in the door with a company who used drivers on an ad-hoc basis. They’d have to like me of course, and I’d have to not screw up and break anything on my first run, presumably, but it still represented a way out of the 70 hour week. Much though I like the work, the exhaustion was killing me, not to mention the alarming weight loss.

I decided to take the chance. Linamar appeared quite sorry to lose me. I was doing fine they said, it was only a door after all and everyone does that. I was driving well, getting everything delivered on time. But I knew I wouldn’t cope long term. If the industry standard was to view the legal maximum hours as a practical minimum and to assume that nobody really needed their sleep then I really was in the wrong job. Part-time trucking was starting to look very attractive, whatever this new company turned out to be like.

So, Bert and I dutifully turned up at a new yard on Sunday evening. The plan was to drive to Montreal overnight and deliver 10 tractors to an auction house for Monday morning. The company would be driving us back apparently. The tractors were waiting for us, with neatly organised paperwork inside. There was even a little hand-drawn map of where we had to go. I began to think these people might be a considerate bunch to work for. We had arrived a little ahead of the other 8 drivers, expecting to take longer to get settled and sorted, but we were ready to go in short order and decided to set off early anyway, both assuming that our elderly bladders might require more stops along the way than the whiz kids.

And this is how I found myself driving a heavy duty, 18-speed Peterbilt for someone I’d never met. I’ve written about Petes before. They are reputedly the Rolls Royce of North American trucking, drivers are duty bound to love them, but I've yet to work out why. They appear to be designed for people with very long arms and legs. If you are normal sized, sitting where you can reach the pedals means that the dash comes up to your nose and the windscreen looks like a skylight. I have driven with Pete fans who have to lower their seat to the floor in any other truck, just to recreate this bizarre lack of visibility. All the buttons and knobs and things you have to twiddle are located just out of reach. This makes for a commandingly impressive cab, reminiscent of some flight deck or other, but an annoying drive if you aren't Twizzle.

Although, maybe normal-sized men have longer arms and legs than normal-sized women. I’d not noticed. Thinking back to the day Rachael and I had to suit up to put a suspected Lassa Fever patient in our ambulance, we asked for average-sized infection control suits and spent ages rolling up the arms and legs.

I digress. I was heartily glad to have driven a Pete back at Challenger with Dave the long-haired Angel addict. All I had to do was think back to Howard Stern on the radio and the locations of things that weren’t where they should be came flooding back; thus we were on the road in no more time that it would have taken to safety a familiar truck.

Nothing went wrong. That makes for very little to write about. Road works, impossible signage and rude drivers are all normal for Montreal (I’ve mentioned hating Montreal more than once) but it was all a little easier to handle without a trailer. We arrived at the auction yard at about half-past-five in the morning. The guard spoke only French. Bert sent him to talk to me, on the grounds that I was edumacated, but my French education stopped with a barely scraped pass at O level. I think he was telling me that we couldn’t park there but I chose to refuse to understand. “Les autres,” I stumbled, dredging up a word at a time. “venez ici…aussi.” He looked puzzled. “Dix camions!” I waved my hands around dramatically. He started to look defeated.

As if to punctuate my words, a straggly line of identical tractors started to arrive and line up behind us. “Avec nous!” With much irritated body language, he gave up, opened the barrier and directed us to park in a line behind a bunch of JCB type things. Then, in a flurry of bad-tempered paperwork, ten of us were relieved of our trucks and the conversations began. Apparently we were supposed to have to wait until 8 o’clock to deliver the trucks. One of the somebodies-in-charge called our transport home to tell him we were ready to roll. He had been dispatched the previous day and accommodated in a hotel so that he would have had legal amounts of sleep. Thus disturbed he leapt into action and assured us all he was on his way. We snoozed in the backs of our respective cabs until he arrived.

I was expecting a minibus of some sort, not a spanking-great, white, shiny, luxury, super-stretch limousine. We all piled in, settled down among the plump and fancy cushions, took our shoes off and curled up to re-snooze. It was heaven. Apparently this is normal. The chaps took a vote on where to stop for breakfast and settled on the Flying J just outside Montreal. Hooray. You can get a nice veggie omelette at the J and I was unstressed enough to be getting hungry. I dozed happily until we stopped. The two chaps who were emerging as the bosses of this pleasant little outfit commandeered half the restaurant and organised the wait staff into pushing tables together so that all eleven of us could eat together. I now know that you have to order a ‘mirror’ egg in French Canada if you want it sunny side up. Sorry, that should be ‘miroir’. Because it’s shiny. Not that I like sunny side up eggs but if I ever run another B&B it might come in handy.

Once we’d all places our orders for breakfast combos, steak and eggs, monster omelettes and the like, one of the boss chaps told the server to put it all on one bill. I looked at Bert, nonplussed. “They buy our breakfast?” He grinned and nodded. 

Plenty of coffee and brekky later, the atmosphere in the limo became positively festive. The questioning started, who was I? What had I driven? How had I ended up in their convoy? I hedged a bit but didn’t tell any outright porkies. And the fact that I’d driven their vehicle from a to b appeared to speak for itself. It wasn’t long before the questions turned to teasing and that’s when you know it’s all ok. I go a bit quiet in unknown corners of macho territory, you never quite know where the resentment might lie, but teasing means acceptance. Especially after the bit of conversation that went,
”I’m surprised they let us in so early.”
“That might be my fault. I think he was trying to tell me we couldn’t go in but I pretended not to understand.”
“Do you speak French?”
“Only a bit, I kept on telling him there were 10 of us until he caved in.”
The value of a girlie on the crew started to seep into a few minds and this was turning into the sort of trucking I could cope with.

Then someone dug around under some coats and bags and unearthed a huge cooler. It was placed carefully in the middle of the limo within everyone’s reach. It was full of beer. Gobsmacked for a third time. “That’ll help you sleep on the way back” grinned the guy who had mother-henned us around the truck stop. And we did. This is definitely the sort of trucking I can cope with.

They took my phone number and asked about availability for future runs. I think I’m officially a part-time trucker. The blogs might be less regular but I stand a better chance of surviving. And the book gets to have a chapter called Convoy!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Without wishing to launch into a tedious lecture, that would never do in  a blog devoted to whimsy, there are several ways that airbrakes can fail. The most spectacular shouldn’t ever happen. Overheated brakes leading to runaway trucks are down to bad driving, no more, no less. But a leak in the air line can happen to anyone and it depends a little where you are, and how catastrophic the leak is, what happens next. The normal brake-pedal brakes work by compressed air being pumped into the brake chambers, but the emergency/parking/handbrake thingy works when air is taken out. That one’s called a spring brake, because, well, it’s got a spring in it for leaping into action when required. Trouble is, when things are faulty and the air pressure drops, the spring brake can pop on anyway. It's a safety feature, but you don’t want it happening all of a sudden on the highway. That’s why a warning alarm goes off before things get that drastic.

I’d noticed, about a mile or so from Guelph, that my low air warning had started to go off at traffic lights. I'd put it down to being tired and using too much welly on the brakes instead of judging my approach from a distance. But, while the truck sat on the dock being unloaded, whatever was leaking air must have got worse. With pressure dropping in all the tanks, the trailer spring brakes wouldn't release when I tried to leave. Still in blaming-self rather than blaming-vehicle mode I checked all the stupid, tired-person mistakes I could have made. Like trying to pull away while the dock clamps still had hold of the back bumper. Or forgetting to take the chocks out from under the wheels. But an air issue it was. I switched the engine on and sat for a while as the gauges registered an illegally slow build-up. The truck would be going off the road for repair. But I was in the way, other people were waiting to get onto the dock, unload and go home. This was a very antisocial spot for a breakdown. Finally I built up just enough air to release the brakes; if I didn’t use the brake pedal for the scant kilometre back to the yard I could maybe park up and declare the truck out of service somewhere convenient. I still had some freight in the trailer, I could use its weight and the gears to slow me down.

I turned off the dock, left in front of the other trucks, ready to make another left turn, past the dumpsters, through the car park and out onto the road. But the car park was full of people in cars, in a hurry to get home. One of them zoomed out in front of me and I had to brake sharply. The trailer springs sprung again and I was now stuck at an angle across the car park. I had one more go at revving like mad to get some air pressure going. Then I released the clutch to see if I could get the truck to move. It leapt forwards, and a spot to the left, whereupon I twigged that I’d taken the turn round the dumpster a little tight. Under normal circumstances I’d have had time to correct it.

In my defence I maintain most stoutly that if the crappy, falling–to-bits-wreck of a tractor they gave to the rookie hadn’t inflicted a brake failure on me, that dumpster wouldn’t have ripped the back door of my trailer completely off. Or maybe it would, I was very tired and making some crap decisions.

I had no idea what to do next. I just stood there, nonplussed. What do you do with a trailer door on the ground? Apart from wishing that the last 10 seconds could be rewound. That I’d closed the doors before trying to release the springs, that I’d looked at my mirrors instead of my air gauges. Fortunately (in a manner of speaking) I had an audience. A couple of avuncular Linamar drivers took over. They regaled me with tales of how many times everyone they knew had ripped a trailer door off and how it wasn’t a big deal really. They picked the door up, popped it in the back of the trailer and strapped it to the inside wall so that a forklift could still get in and unload the rest of the freight in the morning. They followed me slowly back to the yard in case the brakes gave trouble again. Back at dispatch, more people told me that everybody does it. But I was devastated, exhausted, hungry and miserable. With my tractor off the road for repairs for a couple of days, there would be time to think about how exhausted, hungry and miserable I actually enjoyed being.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Be careful what you wish for.

The next pickup came through just as I pulled in to the ‘J’ for fuel. Saint Mary’s, Pennsylvania. I looked it up. It was on the way home all right but not via any main roads. On the edge of the Allegheny Forest in Elk County, it was smack in the middle of the mountains. I would be driving across the Appalachians and through the Alleghenies to get there and I had to be there by 8 in the morning. It was lunchtime. Forgoing the shower (thank goodness for baby wipes, they make a tolerable strip-wash at a pinch) I headed off, determined to get as far as I could in daylight. 

Then I thought better of this plan. Once off the 81, I would have very limited access to places to sleep. There would be nowhere safe to pull off the road once I was in the mountains proper. The route Betsy planned out for me included two short stretches of Interstate, a bit of the Turnpike and then a smaller bit of Highway 80 further north. I would have to stop for a legal break on one or the other. The 80 looked as though it only had one rest area within reach of the bit I needed; and that would involve going past my exit and having to double back in the morning. I opted to stop on the turnpike, earlier rather than later. It would mean a lot of driving in the morning, but I could stop at 6, say, then start at 4 in the morning and be there on time, even allowing for bendy roads and slower speed limits.

The Turnpike turned up trumps for me with a real service area just before I had to turn off it to head north. It had parking space, coffee, and pizza and sandwich places for supper and breakfast. If I’d been able to unknot my stomach enough, I’d have been able to eat well. As it was I opted for another nibble of trail mix and fell asleep wondering how long it would be before I would be able to eat properly.

Starting at 4 in the morning is getting easier. The brisk walk to collect coffee helped with waking up, whereupon I realised that it was decidedly foggy. The road had already started to climb, I’d forgotten about altitude and fog. It wasn’t too thick though, I decided as I ran around the truck completing my morning check of lights, tyres and other checkables. It wouldn’t slow me down too much. But I’d forgotten about mountains. Driving off the highway took me onto little winding roads through woodlands and the fog got thicker. Terrible visibility, bends and hills all had me exhausted with churning up and down through the gears. I made very slow progress. With less freight on board, I wasn’t as heavy as I’d been the previous day, but the grades were steeper off the Interstate. They had the sort of percentages that meant big signs demanding that trucks STOP at the top to select the right low gear for getting down it safely. I hadn’t seen that sort of thing since The Rockies. But I had seen it before, and in winter on roads that were too slick for the Jake brake. Once I remembered that I’d done this sort of thing before in worse conditions and survived I perked up enough to take a few photos of a truly stunning dawn. And think a few beautiful thoughts.

I didn’t pass a single rest area, service area or truck stop. None of the junctions were large enough for a joining ramp and if there had been a safe pace to park I would probably have missed it in the overnight fog. I declared my decision of the previous day, to sleep before leaving the turnpike, another stroke of genius and decided, somewhat complacently, to put it down to experience.

Saint Mary’s was in the middle of a mountain. I passed the ‘highest point in the Alleghenies’ to get there. There was a sign. I was an hour late. The foundry itself was a huge building but didn’t have any apparent driveways in or signs for trucks. I stopped by the side of the road opposite a little barrier with a hut and ambled in to ask directions.
“The shipping docks are just down there,” the guard pointed down the road.
“I can’t see a driveway.”
“No, they’re on the side of the building, you can just see a truck backing in now.”
“What, that one reversing across the street?”
“Yes, you can turn around in the parking lot over there,” he indicated a bit of waste land, “the traffic gets a bit impatient but it’s the only way.”
I thanked him prettily, parked where directed and wandered over the road to fret about the docks. There were two of them, both offset to the right so that a right-angled reverse would have your blind side out in the traffic .They were also set back under a roof so that the usual ‘can’t see the dock til you’re in the building’ rules applied as well. The only way in would be to back across a busy road. Oh dear.

The shipper was a charmer called Ray. He parodied my accent for a while as he bustled about checking papers. One of my shipments was ready but the other one would have to be collected from somewhere else by a little van, which would need to unload at the dock before I could pull onto it. At least nobody cared that I was late. Could I wait an hour? I quipped that I could wait an hour for them if they could wait an hour for me to reverse over the road. Ray promised, in an accent worse than anything Dick Van Dyke ever produced, to come and collect me when they had the dock clear. He also undertook, sliding into an accent from Frazier, to stop the traffic on his way back over the road for as long as it took. Anticipating embarrassment I headed off for a snooze. I’d been working for 5 hours already that day and had at least 7 more hours driving to get home. That would have been too many hours driving in the US of course, but crossing the border would give me 2 more legal driving hours. I was learning how to cheat.

The embarrassment wasn’t too bad in the end. There was a bit of jiggery-pokery with lining up under the roof, but all in all, a tolerable effort.
“After all that about your backing,” Ray used the opportunity to try a little more Cockney “and you knew what you were doing all the time.” Gratified, I beamed.
“Ah, well, always under-promise and over-deliver” I put on a truly terrible American accent, “it helps people have a good day.”
Trailer loaded, skids strapped down, paperwork faxed and all in order I headed away from another foundry having made another friend. I was starting to feel like a real trucker at last. One who doesn’t screw up, delay people, apologise for being new or otherwise let the sisterhood down.

The drive from Saint Mary’s to Buffalo and the border was one of the hardest physical things I have ever done. Mountains, little towns, villages, the only road north wound its way through what felt like every community In Pennsylvania. Each little place had a sharp turn into a little main street, with buses, children and shoppers all hell-bent on throwing themselves under my wheels, and a sharp turn out again off into the hilly, bendy bits. As soon as the road widened out into some semblance of a highway, the construction began. By the time I hit the border I was feeling the effects of four days’ worth of too much anxiety, too little sleep and even less food. My three customs dockets were stamped with no trouble and I breathed a sigh of relief, floored the throttle and rejoiced that being in Ontario meant ‘nearly home’. All this adventuring was turning out to be a lot more tiring and stressful than planned.

Arriving at the Guelph plant waiting for my various skids of stuff, I thought my trip was over. Easily onto the dock, perfect paperwork, I was done within 20 minutes and ready to run the scant kilometre back to the yard to park up and go home. But one should never relax too soon.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

More friends

Oors’la had predicted that the 29 would be busy as well as full of mad speed limit changes; and that Interstate 81 would be nose-to tail-trucks. She was right on all counts, and I began to lose interest in trying to get to Roanoke by midnight. The nose-to-tail truck thing set me wondering how easy it would be to find a place to sleep. There didn’t appear to be an abundance of truck stops in and around Roanoke itself or on the way, that meant the rest areas would fill up early.

I opted to stop early, about 9ish, and find a place to sleep in daylight before the mass truck-parking binge began. Stopping about an hour from the morning’s destination would mean that I could take a legal 10 hour rest, start at 7 and be delivering by 8 in the morning. Perfectly acceptable. I found a rest area, parked relatively untroubled, sent my eta to dispatch by satellite, and settled down for some serious rest. I was beyond tired… too exhausted to eat even though I was hungry, too zoned-out to miss the shower I wasn’t having and wanting very much to turn for home as early as I could tomorrow.

A return message came through, had I exchanged one trailer for another at Culpeper? I replied that, no I hadn’t, they had unloaded while I waited and I was off now for my legal rest. Apparently they like to be told when you are going to sleep so that they don’t disturb you with unnecessary messages. Huh. Half way through the night an incessant bleeping woke me up. It was dispatch wanting to know if I’d delivered the Culpeper load yet, which inevitably led to some whingeing of the ‘don’t you people bother to read the messages I bother to send you?’ variety. I didn’t get back to sleep.

Finding Roanoke and the customer, loading up and sorting the paperwork all went remarkably smoothly in the morning. It was still before 9 when I call despatch to tell them I had four skids on board and was ready to come home.
“We may have another load for you to add first, we’re not sure yet. Call us in half an hour.” I sat for half an hour in the customer’s grounds but started to feel a bit in the way as cars and trucks arrived and left. I called back.
“We still don’t have a reload for you, give us another half an hour.”
“I’m a bit in the way here, can I start heading home while I’m waiting?”
“We don’t know which direction we’ll be sending you in yet, could be anywhere now you’re that far south, find somewhere local to wait.”

I wasn’t getting happier. I remembered seeing a truck stop just as I’d pulled off the Interstate and decided to retrace my steps and try to find it. At least there would be coffee, breakfast and maybe a snooze while I waited. Tales abounded among Linamar drivers of being expected to wait for a day or two once they had you that far from home. It was cheaper to keep you there doing nothing, waiting for business, than to bring you back half empty. I found the truck stop and it was bedlam. So many trucks were trying to get in and out that the road was gridlocked in both directions as far as I could see. It appeared to be the only truck stop in the region and clearly my assessment of the local late-night parking potential had been spot on. Maybe I was getting some experience. I declared my decision of the previous night a stroke of genius and waited my turn to pull in, realising with a sinking feeling that I would be competing for parking space with people whose reversing was much fast than mine. Once I pulled off the road though I twigged that I had been clever again. More trucks were leaving than arriving. I found a ‘pull-through’ space and, grinning again, set off in search of coffee.

There was a small restaurant advertising country-style, all-day breakfasts. I hadn’t eaten anything more substantial than half a peanut butter sandwich or a handful of trail mix for several days and I fancied breakfast so I headed on in. They bring you coffee pdq in a truckstop and I was on the outside of my first cup before the menu arrived. I ordered a veggie omelette and sat back to enjoy the conversation about what I would like to have served with it. Fries, hash browns or home fries? I usually ask for home fries because I never quite know what they will produce. Sometimes they are like sauté potatoes, all crispy with onions, sometimes they are shredded more like a rosti, sometimes closer to an oven-wedge thing. It’s a minor amusement. Then there is the litany of bread to choose from for your toast. There will always be wheat, white, sourdough or rye, but it depends how far south you are what comes last. “Or biscuit” is very southern and seems to start in the Carolinas. In Roanoke, Virginia, I can now report that they offer “or Texas toast”. I was tempted, because I’m not quite sure what Texas toast is, but settled for rye, because I like it and the need for comfort food overtook my customary writerly curiosity.

My omelette arrived, with shredded rosti-like home fries and toast. It looked good, loaded with fresh veg, no slimy tinned mushrooms. “Would you like Hot Sauce?” the waitress asked me. That’s another location thing; far enough south and the green and red Tabasco are already on the tables with the ketchup. “No thank you,” I replied “but I wonder if you have any vinegar?” She looked confused, they always do.
“It’s a Brit thing,” I added helpfully. She thought for a moment and brightened, “yes we do, I’ll bring it for you.” And she did. She brought me the little oil and vinegar condiment set from the salad bar and beamed from ear to ear as she set it down. I’ve not had raspberry vinegar on potatoes before, but it was actually very nice. Much nicer than the last time I asked for vinegar in the US and they brought me low-cal Italian salad dressing.

I messed about with my food for a while, pushing it around the plate. My brain was hungry but my stomach wasn’t. That knot of anxiety that hadn’t gone away since day 1 on the road was still huge enough to take up all the available space in my guts. To be honest, that has been another reason I’ve been happy to sleep in rest areas rather than truck stops. I don’t seem to be able to get a meal down while I’m on the road. What with being expected to cheat on my rest time it’s been remarkably helpful in a lot of ways, I can spend all the available time asleep. I’m losing weight, which is a bonus, but I’m not sure how healthy that will be long-term.

I had nibbled about a quarter of my brekkie when the waitress returned.
“Would you like another omelette?” I thought that she thought I didn’t like it and wanted something different, since I was making a very untruckerly job of ploughing through it.
“No thank you, it’s lovely, I just wasn’t as hungry as I thought I was.”
“Well, it’s all you can eat, so let me know if you want another one when you’re done.”
I let this piece of information sink in. She was offering me a second omelette after my first one because the restaurant advertised ‘all you can eat’. I’d not come across that before. All-you-can-ear buffets and salad bars, yes, and I’ve been offered extra toast, salad, garlic bread, etc. when they are sides to an entrée, but no-one has ever offered to recook my entire meal. I double-checked that I’d understood her right and we had one of those conversations that began with “I love your accent” and ended with “you come back and see us again now” and I wished I could have eaten my first omelette and made an attempt at a second, just to make her happy.

I bought a few bits and another coffee in the little shop on my way back out to the truck. The girl behind the counter asked me how I was today and when I replied we had another of those conversations that began with “I love your accent” and ended with “you come back and see us again now” and I was minded to declare Virginia the friendliest state I have visited so far.

I called dispatch and they had nothing to tell me. I snoozed for an hour or two and called again. I had decided that I would head for the shower if I had to sit there any longer, despite the fact that I was at a TA truckstop and would have to pay for it. We only get free showers at the chains we refuelled at…the Flying J or Pilot group. They still had nothing to tell me. I whinged a bit. They had a bit of a conflab and then told me to start heading home and call in a couple of hours. Hooray. There was a Flying J half way up the 81, I’d get there, have a free shower, another attempt at a meal, and then call.

I was sufficiently perked by the prospect of going home and a shower to pop the radio on and see what Virginia had to offer by way of weird radio stations. I’ve moaned before about how the US seems to have nothing but religious stations outside of major cities, even around Memphis there had been was no country music to laugh at, just more hymns and sermons. But I struck lucky in Virgina. I found a station of such countryness that I started to compile a list of song titles in my head for the purposes of adding a little US flair to the travel writing. I was charmed by Redneck Romeo, amused by Everything’s Good in the Trailerhood and then utterly horrified by something nasty about three crosses by the road. I didn’t catch all the words but it was about a road accident and some preacher waving a blood-stained bible about. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I went right off Virginia on the spot, turned the radio off and went back to my audio books from the library.

I looked the lyrics up later, just in case I had imagined it in some sort of starvation-induced waking nightmare. Here they are for your edification and delight:

A farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher,
Ridin' on a midnight bus bound for Mexico.
One's headed for vacation, one for higher education,
An' two of them were searchin' for lost souls.
That driver never ever saw the stop sign.
An' eighteen wheelers can't stop on a dime.

There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway,
Why there's not four of them, Heaven only knows.
I guess it's not what you take when you leave this world behind you,
It's what you leave behind you when you go.

That farmer left a harvest, a home and eighty acres,
The faith an' love for growin' things in his young son's heart.
An' that teacher left her wisdom in the minds of lots of children:
Did her best to give 'em all a better start.
An' that preacher whispered: "Can't you see the Promised Land?"
As he laid his blood-stained bible in that hooker's hand.

There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway,
Why there's not four of them, Heaven only knows.
I guess it's not what you take when you leave this world behind you,
It's what you leave behind you when you go.

That's the story that our preacher told last Sunday.
As he held that blood-stained bible up,
For all of us to see.
He said: "Bless the farmer, and the teacher, an' the preacher;
"Who gave this Bible to my mamma,
"Who read it to me."

There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway,
Why there's not four of them, now I guess we know.
It's not what you take when you leave this world behind you,
It's what you leave behind you when you go.

There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway.

It’s by Randy Travis. I won’t be dashing out to buy the album.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

New friends

After 20 minutes or so the news on the CB changed. It meandered from "the chopper’s landed" via "someone must be still alive” through “chopper’s leaving” to “both southbound lanes are open now, northbound still closed, you’re not going anywhere just yet, driver.” Amid thanks for the updates – well not from me, I just thought them – we gradually started to move. It was 6 o’clock when Betsy informed me I had arrived at my destination, a huge plant on a vast quantity of open land with a clearly marked driveway for shipping and receiving. I risked driving down it a short way. Big places with signs for trucks usually mean you’ll be able to turn around.

Little places in city centres with no apparent entrance apart from a car park, on the other hand, are lairs of impossibility waiting to trap the unwary rookie. I learned this the hard way at a tiny foundry in Windsor, Ontario. All we had to do was deliver an empty pallet on the way to the border. Presumably they normally send them in a smaller van but we were passing the door, almost. It looked cramped and there wasn’t an obvious way in. I was with my trainer at the time and she recommended parking up on the main road, in the turning lane between the two yellow lines, sticking the hazards on and phoning for instructions. This we had done, with mixed success. The receptionist who answered the phone told us all about how to drive round the building, enter the car park from Seneca Street and the dock was on the left; she had clearly missed the bit about us being in an 18-wheeler.

On that occasion I had dutifully driven round the building into Seneca Street and looked doubtfully at the car park and the dock.
“I don’t think I can turn around in there.”
“I’ll direct you” said my trainer, it’s tight but you can do it.”
I'd wiggled into the car park at just the same moment as a little food and coffee wagon entered from the other end. He parked right in front of the dock, where I would be needing to turn and reverse. We sat and waited politely, noting as we did so that the dock was actually just a big door, there was nothing to reverse up to for a forklift to mess about on. As we sat, people began to emerge and shout. Apparently it was time for them to go home and we were in the way. One particularly obnoxious individual demanded that we get out of his way. My trainer, who does a good line in sweetness and light with menacing undertones told him that we would be doing so just as soon as the coffee wagon got out of our way. This wasn’t good enough. She asked him where he thought we should move to. And he told her. Things were getting a little ugly by the time the forklift driver arrived to say “oh, you’re in here, usually tractor-trailers park in the street and we drive out and unload them from there.”

“Why did you drive in?” another member of the, by now, expanding audience enquired.
“The receptionist told us to…” I was embarrassed, my trainer was furious, the guy who wanted to go home was apoplectic and what with one thing and another, I learned a few lessons about driving onto unknown premises. You can’t go far wrong assuming that there be dragons. I went back to the place with the car-park in Windsor a week or so later and was very pleased with myself for remembering where to park. I forgot something else equally vital, but that’s another tale.

And anyway, we’re in Culpeper now. I drove as far as a barrier by a little guard’s hut. The hut was empty. It had a little paper note stuck to the window that had spent too much time out in the rain. Something about finding the guard at the main entrance to the building and using a phone. It was a pleasant evening, I shut off the engine and went walkabout. I found a fancy main entrance to the building with a place for staff to swipe id cards, but no staff. And no guard. An elderly phone sat on the wall though, and a little sign that said ‘To contact security guard’ so I lifted the receiver. There was a recorded message. I put it down. Was there any point in leaving a message? I didn’t know. I picked it up again. And put it down again. But then, if I was going to call dispatch and tell them the place was deserted they’d ask about that sort of thing wouldn’t they? It would sound better to say “I left a message and nobody came” than “it said leave a message and I didn’t”. So I did.

I continued walking. A good reason to appear to be lost and looking for someone is that it gives you a chance to find the docks and scope out how the hell to set up for them without looking too much like you have no idea what you are doing. And since I was lost and looking for someone anyway, a tour round the outside of the building seemed like a good idea.

I found some docks and a warehousey bit round the back. The doors were open and the lights were on. I could hear some activity around machinery way over to the back but nobody buzzed me with a forklift. I found an office that said SHIPPING on the door. The lights were on and the door was open but it was deserted. It had phones though. I could call dispatch from there and sound more intelligent than from outside the front of the building. Maybe I could find a loo first. Now I had a plan. Wander through the plant looking for the ladies, if accosted, tell people I was trying to find the shipper, then return to the deserted office to make that call if there was still nobody to be found.

The lady with the fierce hair found me as I was telling dispatch, from the phone on her desk, that I was here but nobody else was. “You should have come and found me,” she reproached, “I’m the only one here after five, I can’t be everywhere.” She was tiny, had the sort of glasses that are elaborate enough to count as jewellery, wore a sparkly salmon pink top and reminded me of one of my scarier aunts. I grovelled.
“I’m so sorry, I’m new at this and I’ve not been here before, I didn’t know where to look.”
“Didn’t the guard tell you?”
“I couldn’t find the guard, I’m still parked up by the barrier.”
She softened a bit. And walked me back through the building to show me where I should have looked for the guard. When he wasn’t there, and she tried the phone and got the recorded message, she softened a lot more and declared it her mission for the evening to sort this out. 

We made introductions. “I’m Ursula,” she said, although that isn’t how it sounded. What I heard was “I’m Oooors’la”, which is the ugliest way I’ve ever heard anyone pronounce a pretty name, I thought for a fleeting moment she was unwell. Oors’la bustled and I followed on her heels like a puppy, which is hard to do when you are twice someone’s size, until she found the hapless guard. He apologised, he was new too. He’d been told to patrol the building, nobody told him there would be deliveries. Once we’d all made friends, forgiven each other for first impressions and blamed absent jobsworths he raised the barrier, and I drove round to the dock.

By the time I had made a decent job of reversing in, Oors’la was my best friend. It turned out that she literally was the only person in the shipping department after five, since she it was who beetled in and out of my trailer, unloading it with a forklift. Somehow, I expected from her demeanour that I was dealing with an office person, but who am I to judge by appearance? She drove her forklift in fastidious manner, with pinkies raised, exactly as though she were having a polite cup of tea. I didn’t know that was possible.

My new pal told me all about the best way to drive to Roanoke, where the sneaky speed limit changes were and to “be sure to come back and visit again soon”. I left Culpeper, Virginia a lot more sprightly than I intended to and headed south. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Pennsylvania Turnpike

 Up a little before legal driving time for a flurry of wet-wipes by way of a wash. All this stopping late at night nowhere near a truckstop means that the chances of a proper shower are minimal. Once I’m off and running through the day, even if I swing into a truckstop for coffee, fuel or a wee, the pressure to cover enough miles before my 14 hours is up means that making time for a shower is out of the question. That’s what your 10 hour break is for, if you are actually taking it for real. I am getting quite adept at the wetwipe flurry though, and toothcleaning with a tiny mug of water. I have some nifty toileting arrangements too but I’ll spare you the details. A breakfast of trail mix and half an apple and I was ready for anything.

Erie passed by and I turned south, making good time. I sent a satellite message to dispatch…’delayed 4 hrs at shipper, eta 17:00’. I reckoned that catching up on two and a half of my four hour delay and only being an hour and half off target was pretty damned impressive. I’d even remembered to allow for slower driving once I turned west.

Pittsburgh hove into view and the Turnpike began.  I am a little more used to the tollbooths now, although they all vary a bit, so I am never quite sure what's expected and do get a bit flustered. It amuses the staff though and I like to entertain. The toll roads in Indiana and Illinois that I’d used so far just wanted $5 or so to get on to. Pennsylvania seems to like to give you a ticket when you start so that they can charge you by the mile when you leave. Sometimes a person gives you the ticket, sometimes a machine does. Either way, it’s a nuisance having to pull to a stop, especially fully loaded. The lanes all merge back down from half a dozen or so in a very short distance and it takes ages to work up through all the gears to anything like a normal speed. People get impatient and zip round you, becoming hard to avoid once a bit of momentum picks up. I started to regret choosing the Turnpike, it had better be a nice road to drive.

It wasn’t of course. Not only uppy and downy (I sort of assumed that a toll road would have been cut through the landscape a bit) but one huge mass of road works, reducing most of its length to one lane in each direction. And not just coned off with little bollards; these workers were properly protected by temporary concrete barriers on both sides, so that the edges of your lane were alarmingly close and alarmingly, well, concrete. An optical illusions sets in when the side of the road rises up to meet you, you know it’s wide enough but it looks as though it isn’t. The urge to swing from side to side is merciless. I ran through the mantra in my head from training days ‘raise your vision, look ahead, trust the sides, raise your vision, look ahead, trust the sides’ because you do actually know that there is room to pass through, you’re doing it after all. But the moral fibre required to not look down, so that you don’t start to steer away from the concrete, for miles and miles and miles was utterly exhausting.

Of course there was a lot of up and down through the gears as well, the heavier the load the more hills affect your speed, both up and down. The load holds you back and slows you down going up, and the wrong gear can mean grinding to a halt half way up. Going down, a heavy load pushes you forward and speed you up so that the wrong gear can have you going much too fast when you hit a turn at the bottom. Added to which, it’s not a great idea to try and change gear on a hill, the incline messes with the time it takes for the revs to lift or drop the right amount from one gear to the next, making any shift a risk for dropping out completely. To start with they teach you rules for timing gear changes, the revs have to lift or drop by 300rpm and you do it exactly as they say it when they say it until you get the time interval into your head and feet. Of course you are driving around with the same weight in the back all the time in school, and around the same streets. You can learn 6th for this ramp and 4th for that hill and get ready for them in advance. Out in the real world the timing changes slightly for each weight you pull and the single interval you have in your head  has to adapt from run to run. And you learn the hard way that some corners need one gear when empty and another when loaded; some hills can be got up by taking it down a mere half a gear when empty but don’t try it loaded or you’ll be in trouble. The rules gradually get replaced by judgement. It’s a slow process, but judging by the rapid decrease in crunching noises, it’s coming along quite nicely now. I do see why they give rookies a crappy, old, nearly-defunct tractor though.

I had a rule of thumb for gear changes that ended up essential on hills that went ‘a bit quicker than normal’, it was seeing me through most situations with a bit of crunching here and there but no actual ignominious stops in front of speeding traffic. Fully loaded on bigger grades, I now know the rule is ‘a lot quicker than normal’ and somehow, annoyed, pissed off and regretting trusting Betsy and the Pennsylvania Turnpike I got across the Appalachians and into the tiny spit of Maryland that runs across the top of the Virginias.

And here I have to meander down a diversion about how weird it is that states look different from each other. You can drive about the UK and Europe and cross from one country to another without the landscape looking much different, and my assumption was that state lines were pretty arbitrary so it always surprises me when I cross a state line and things change right away. There was a colour combination in the trees lining the roads in Maryland that I’ve not seen anywhere else. I took a photo but I don’t think the silvers come over remarkably enough.

Making a mental note to return via Highway 15, I congratulated myself on still having an eta of five o’clock when I turned off the highway and took the road to Culpeper. Of course, it was at a standstill. Traffic backed up for what seemed to be miles. This is when the CB comes in really handy. I don’t generally have it on at all, back when it was cutting edge, the CB was the only way for truckers to pass the time but now, since everyone has a cellphone, Bluetooth etc, those who want a pleasant chat will be talking to their families. Radio traffic seems to me to be restricted to people saying hello to each other, slagging off each other’s driving and moaning about stuff. I can live without it. I certainly don’t use it, my voice and accent are bound to set off a whole load of grief, I’ve heard the reactions when women trainers I’ve driven with are unwise enough to broadcast. But, there are times when it’s useful and this was one of them. As soon as a traffic jam develops, everyone starts asking everyone else what’s going on. Someone will know. Often it’s a truck driving in the opposite direction, who has just passed whatever’s holding you up. He can tell you what’s up, how many lanes are closed and how far the traffic is backed up for. Then someone local will pipe up with whether it’s worth taking another route or not, and if so where to turn off. Eventually you can work out whether to sit tight or who to follow. Here’s a tip for you. Next time you are in a traffic jam, watch the trucks. If they all start to head for one lane or another, follow them, they are being coached by someone who knows.

This time the news wasn’t good. A fatal accident closing off all lanes in both directions. It was on the opposite carriageway to ours but both sides had been closed to await a helicopter. Nothing to do but sit tight and tell dispatch I was stuck. I called on the phone, since I wasn’t moving anywhere.
“We’ll let them know, they’re there until 11, just get there when you can.”
“Ok, what about the pickup?”
I was due to travel further south to Roanoke for a reload that day, I hadn’t even looked it up on the map yet.
“They’re there until midnight but you can pick up tomorrow morning if you like, the load has been ready since Monday and it’s not due back until the 3rd.”
This was good news, I could sleep before trying to find the next place, hooray.
“Call when you’re loaded in Roanoke, it’s only 12 bins, we’ll send you somewhere else for more.”
This wasn’t so good. It looked like I was going to be out all week and I was running out of clean clothes.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Pick a mountain...

It sounded like it was going to be a nice trip, heading down to Virginia and starting early enough in the day to get a good distance covered in daylight. Virginia is pretty, I’ve been there in the car. There isn’t an obvious way to get there though, what with the mountains and stuff, so I spent a bit of time mulling over the best possible route while I waited to be loaded.

There was time for plenty of mulling. I’d had to drive an hour west to London with a trailer full of empty bins, the company was going to unload those and then put more stuff on before I could head for the border. Since the best crossing for Virginia is at Buffalo, I would be redriving the hour back to Guelph before making any real progress.

My appointment for unloading was 3.30 in the afternoon. I got there 15 minutes late, owing to some shenanigans around load bars. These things are what you use to stop freight from flying about if for some reason the usual straps won’t suffice. And for this load, they wouldn't. This was going to be a full 44,000 lb shipment of heavy bins full of clutch plates and they would be loaded half at the front of the trailer and half over the rear axle, to spread the weight legally. Something hefty behind the rearmost bins was required to stop them walking about every time you have to stop. Automatically worried at the 44,000lb bit of the conversation I’d already asked dispatch about the whole horrible bogie-sliding issue…

”These people are pretty good, they get it right, you shouldn’t have a problem.”
One less thing to worry about, good. But there had to be load bars apparently, straps wouldn't hold these babies down.

“They should be in the trailer from the last trip.”
“I can’t see them, it’s full of bins. Can I assume they’re at the front?”
“They probably are but we shouldn’t take any chances, do you know where we keep them?”
“No, sorry.”
“I’ll meet you outside and show you.”
:Can you show me how they work as well?"

I was very grateful to the kind dispatcher for leaving his desk to help me out until I realised that he fancied a cigarette anyway. The load bar storage trailer was sort of over there, round the back and through a gate. It required reversing up to. Hence the 15 minutes late, so I was initially relieved to be told that the dock they would load me from had another truck still in it...they were running later than I was.

Back to the maps. Culpeper, Virginia lies half way between Interstate 81, which runs between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachians, and Interstate 95, which runs through the Baltimore and Washington conurbation. Given that no-one voluntarily drives round either city, it would be driving some mountains or other but there are two alternatives there too. Highway 15, which follows the path of the Susquehanna River through the top end of the Appalachians, or Interstate 79 through some foothills of the Allegheny mountain range south to Pittsburgh and then the Pennsylvania Turnpike east across the Appalachians. Highway 15 would be bendier, the Turnpike would be uppier and downier, I thought. Possibly. 

I asked Betsy and she wanted to go via Pittsburgh, but then she is set to prefer Interstate roads so she would. I had driven Highway 15 once before, with Challenger and recalled that it is very beautiful but very winding with some sharp turns over bridges. It’s also, not being an Interstate, a bit short on rest stops and I had no idea what time I’d be where for sleeping purposes so decided to let Betsy rule. Bigger road would be better roads after all, and the Turnpike, being a toll road, would naturally be better kept and easier to drive.

I sat waiting for my dock for an hour. Then they told me that I was welcome to back in, but it might be another hour before they got to me. This was ok, it was another of those indoor arrangements, where you can’t see what you’re aiming for until you’ve missed it. Plenty of time to mess about in reverse suited me fine.

But plenty of time is finite and after I’d been waiting three hours I began to fret. I had until 3.30 the following afternoon to get to Culpeper, it was going to be a slow drive, I had to fit in a legal sleep break somewhere so I needed to be heading for the border, now. The unloading began. The guy must have been being paid by the hour, as I’ve never seen a trailer empty out so slowly. He found the errant load bars though, which meant I’d not needed to collect up the extras. I fitted them anyway, here and there along the trailer, it seemed more sensible to have them fixed to the walls than flying about loose. I finally drove out of there four and a half hours after arriving. The sun was going down. If there’s one thing that puts me in a grump it’s sitting about watching the daylight fade, knowing that I could have driven in daylight but now I will drive in the dark instead.

Two hours to the border took me to after 10, I decided to get as far as I could on the other side by midnight, stop while the roads were still flat, get a good sleep and tackle the difficult stuff in daylight. It looked as though I could get through New York State and into Pennsylvania, stopping just before the road turned South at Erie, there was a rest area on the map, that would do. 

Of course, the first time you drive a road there’s no way to assess what the rest areas will be like. Some are huge, some are tiny, some have conventions for how trucks like to park, and where to insinuate yourself when they are officially full. Late at night when commercial traffic has to stop to stay legal there is a spot of ‘anything goes’ which usually involves parking on the shoulder, either as the ramp curves in to the stop or as it leaves. You are at least a lane further from the through traffic just here, but there are limits and you have to make an effort to be safely out of the way. It is always safer to park on the off-ramp, as the traffic coming past you is leaving the stop much more slowly than it would have entered, but if you drive through a full lot to get to the off-ramp and it’s full too, you’re snookered until the next stop, which could be an illegal amount of miles down the road. My rule of thumb is that if there’s a truck on the on-ramp it probably means that the proper spaces and the off-ramp are full. It also means that parking there is acceptable, so I pull in behind it and hope for the best. On a really good day, another truck pulls in behind me, then I know I’m safe and legalish and sleep a lot better.

This was a tiny rest area. Big scary red ‘no-parking’ signs littered the on-ramp and the legal bays were full. Big scary ‘no parking’ signs littered the off-ramp. There was just about room for one truck between where the signs stopped and the ramp ended. It would have to do. I slept bady.