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.

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