Monday, February 28, 2011


Not sure what truck he's driving but my story is very different from his. This week I have recovered enough from the trauma of the last week to be willing to share. Consider the perspective from 5'2" with the seat pulled as far forward as it will go (which by the way changes all mirror angles).  Where Zygote may back up a truck with one arm out the window, sitting tall and proud in his suspenders and ballcap, I back a truck up from below the steering wheel, peeking over the edge of the window from the floorboard.  LOL-ok, its not quite that bad, but it feels like it.

There are two trucks at our school, and older manual shift, single axle and a newer model automatic dually.  First day on the field (practice area), was in the single axle.  A single axle is more sensitive and able to turn in tighter spots.  Our instructor calls it a "city truck" for making deliveries in inner city areas where you need to be able to get in/get out in smaller spaces.  It has a 45' trailer on it.  The idea was if you learn to back up a more sensitive vehicle first, then learning to back up a double axle tractor/trailer will come easier.

Some considerations for any lightweights out there...the older model air-rides require more body weight to hold them down.  The first challenge I was presented with was staying in the seat while depressing the clutch.  The clutch required enough of my body weight for me to push that the air-ride seat rose a good 4-5 inches each time I did so.  This changed my perspective in the mirrors and my angle to the steering wheel every time I pressed the clutch.  The next challenge was convincing the instructor that the seat, as it was at that moment, was NOT all the way forward.  In actuality, it was as far back as it could go and stuck in place by a faulty mechanism. took me, getting out of the seat onto the floor of the truck and finding the faulty mechanism myself, showing it to him and advising him on what needed to be done to correct the issue. Driving a truck without being able to reach the pedals and/or while being catapulted upward during each gear shift was not going to be possible.  I had a moment where I saw the whole thing blur and fade as impossible--goal unattainable.

This is where my mercurial gemini-twin tendencies mesh perfectly with Zygote's taurian bullheaded-ness.  He sees my evil twin start to emerge and digs in on my behalf.  The man will stop at nothing to make things right for me (and to keep the evil twin at bay). Everything ground to a halt, to our teacher's impatience, while Zygote fixed the faulty mechanism so the seat would move forward again.  He devised a catch that would stop me being sent thru the roof each time I depressed the clutch by tying the air-ride mechanism to limit its range to something more reasonable for my reach.  This time I was able to focus on backing up the truck.

So now we're to that part where it's supposed to be better to learn on the more sensitive vehicle and then transfer that knowledge to the less sensitive vehicle...for some reason that concept didn't make it to my brain synapses.  Our first day in the larger truck was like a "day one" all over again.  There were now whole new contortions to go through to adjust this seat, this air-ride, these mirrors.  Luckily, the mechanisms in the Volvo actually work and the air-ride is not so springy.  My new enemy became the flashing on the rear of the tractor.  Devised to conduct the airflow past the gap between the tractor and trailer to improve gas mileage, it does nothing to aid in visibility.  (Can't they make them out of plexiglass?)  Zygote, on the other hand, had no trouble with the new truck, and it was obvious that his brain had gotten the message that this truck was going to be easier to control...power of suggestion?  My consolation prize was that Zygote was smushing more cones than I was.
Meanwhile, there is this god-awful soliloquy one must memorize and recite regarding all the possible things that could be wrong with the truck.  It's called a "pre-trip"; this is an inspection that must be performed before you get in the truck to drive it, to be certain that the truck is safe to drive.  This is a good thing.  It's also on the CDL test.  Pre-trip, road test and backing test.  Therefore it's practice, practice, practice.  You're going through the parts of the engine, the parts of the suspension, the brakes, the fifth wheel, etc and inspecting certain aspects of each one for damages, so you're naming these parts off and telling what you're looking for.  Second day of learning pre-trip, I had the instructors under the truck explaining parts to me.  They wanted me to just rattle this stuff off, and I wasn't going to do it.  If I'm going to need to inspect it, then you need to tell me what it is and where it is and what it does. Zygote was just as obnoxious with questions;now, our instructors tease us and say that between the two of us, there will never be anything wrong with our truck.  While others are doing backing exercises, practicing pre-trip means you're walking around and around the truck reciting things to yourself, peering at parts and thinking of all the things that could/might go wrong.  It's a very comforting process; not.  Zygote and I performed our individual pre-trip performances for each other today for the first time from start to finish.  QA and data analyst-this pre-trip's got nothing on us.

I got online last night and found 4 really good YouTube videos for teaching backing techniques.  Zygote started his day this morning with them.  He passed a milestone and has mastered backing at a 45 degree angle.  He nailed it almost every time and smushed no cones. Tomorrow we are back out on the road.  For anyone actually interested in backing up a tractor trailer:

Years ago, when I was a logger in Vermont, I drove a team of Belgian draft horses.  A few days ago, a guy driving a milk tanker got his rig stuck in a snow drift in Pennsylvania.  An Amish man hitched his 4 Belgians to the tractor trailer and pulled it out.  It was on the evening news, and there is a YouTube video of it also.  Seeing those horses pull that truck out is one of the very purest pleasures life has to offer. Keepin' the perspective.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Steel Wheels A Rollin'

There is a raw power to driving a big rig that grabs you right down in your guts.  The thrill approaches and matches the purest levels of elevated awareness I have ever felt: running a difficult rapid successfully, finding the root cause of a complex problem, flying, completing a good days hike, getting a new song down near perfect for the fist time.  I do not know how long this feeling will last, driving will be a job, a routine; but each time I get behind the wheel now, especially on the open road,  the exhilaration is intoxicating.

Driving on the range, particularly backing, can be frustrating. Often I feel on the cusp of revelation, where the concept in the mind joins with the memory of muscle and you just will the beast between the cones; but I still find myself having to think and often over think a backing maneuver.  It will come, but I want it to come now.

Then I get out on the road and the frustration fades. There is so much input to process.  Cars, horns, wind, rain, construction, rough roads, narrow lanes, narrow shoulders.  It draws me away from the fear, the apprehension.  Eyes scan forward and on all the mirrors, processing everything. Noted are the cars that I saw approach and fade into my blind spot, slow vehicles ahead, drivers merging into my lane or waiting at a light or parking lot entrance, cars and other tractor trailers overtaking and passing me.    Each turn is an exercise in overriding years of car driving instinct to complete the turn quickly. This is no car, I am behind the wheel of  55 + feel of tractor and trailer, sitting on 10 tons of vehicle at the minimum. All blends to form a picture of potential hazards that must be recognized and avoided.

After driving the big rig, my truck or Willow's car feels inadequate.  Small, pitifully 4 wheeled, not powerful enough.  I have not  transformed into the quintessential truck driver. There is much to learn and there will always be room for refinement of my skills. It is still the beginning of a new journey but this is beginning to feel a lot more like home.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Spring Winds

Cheyenne culture recognized the wind as a harbinger of great change.  The wind has blown steadily here for the past two weeks. We all settle into our personal comfort zones within our lives, whether that be our job, our personal habits, our patterns of relating to others, or our dialy routines.  Like the wind rustling leaves along the ground, all my comfort zones have been jostled around.   There are few constants left.

Much of this change is refreshing and welcomed.  The stress level I had grown accustomed to living daily has been cut to zero. Yes, being under pressure to learn in front of an audience is a kind of stress, but that is a personal stress that is controlled by attitude.  It is not the same stress as that imposed by outside sources beyond one's control.  I am once again able to spend a good portion of my day outside--thank goodness we've had absolutely divine weather for February! I actually have my first sunburn of the season already!  As the day goes by and I find myself taking a break under a tree in the winter short sun rays, I think of how fortunate I am, and I am grateful to be free of my comfort zone for awhile, as hard as it may be. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Our story

It was only a few months after we first starting dating that Willow and I first discussed our mutual fascination with the idea of becoming a long haul trucker.  While we were on one of our first road trips the subject came up, and we found yet another thing we shared in common.  Over the last two years the discussion continued, both of us were itching to make a life change.  We were both familiar with the joys and risks associated with making a leap of faith and dropping nearly everything familiar to peruse a dream. Willow traveled the country after college before becoming a Mom, and hike the AT at 40.  I traveled in my twenties, seeing Alaska and the west.  Now both of us were itching to do it again. Willow's 2 sons are grown, so we decided now was the time.

In August 2010 we began researching and looking at schools. By October we had begun to plan in earnest.  After a trip out west in October, where I proposed to Willow and she accepted.  We began to plan our wedding and while we did this our plans for trucking continued. At the end of January 2011 we were married .  That same week things fell together with trucking school and an offer of employment from a trucking company after our graduation. We decided to start trucking school on Valentine's day.

So three days after the wedding, we put in our notices at work.  We had planned to leave on good terms, but the amount of support and encouragement we received from our co workers and managers was still a pleasant surprise.  After farewells and drinks with everyone on Friday, we drove to Roanoke to visit with Amy's father and step-mother.  Monday we were in school.

The first week is all class time, 10 hours a day. Those days are long and filled with the minutia of North Carolina and United States commercial driver regulations and rules. Towards the end of the week we learned logging and hours of service (the regulations that control when you can drive and when you must rest on the road, and how to record that). We were able to actually work with a truck when we began learning the steps to inspect the vehicle for our "hands on" tests towards the end of school.  The big focus was studying for our written tests on Friday.

Friday came and we were both prepared but nervous.  While you can retake the tests 3 times per application fee we both wanted to pass the first time. We had studied and taken practice tests all week.  It paid off, we both based all the required tests, and our test for a Hazardous Material endorsement that many tucking companies require or pay extra for.  We finished the day being fingerprinted for a TSA (Transportation and Safety Administration for those  of you that might live in a cave) security clearances required for the Hazardous Material endorsement.  So the week is done, we both went out and enjoyed the beautiful 70 degree day, relaxed, and had a good meal.  On to next week where we should begin learning to drive Big Rigs!

CDL Lerner's Permit

After a week of classtime, we have passed our tests at the DMV for General Knowledge, Combination Vehicles, Air Brakes, and HazMat.  Both of us were so nervous taking the tests that we answered questions wrong that we knew the answers to.  Zygote was seated first at a testing computer and given a headset.  I was seated next and did not receive a headset.  A gentleman was seated after me and was given a headset.  I read the part on the screen about adjusting the volume, etc and saw the headphone jack but it did not occur to me until 3/4 of the way into the test that the distractions were a handicap for my ability to concentrate on the questions.  Such is a day in the life of my brain.  I can intuit your innermost secrets by looking at you, but I can't figure out the glaringly obvious to save my life.  Anyway, the test questions were worded weirdly, and I missed some from sheer nervous stupidity, some from being in a hurry and a few from actually not knowing what answer they wanted.  I passed with room to spare though which did not deflate the great sense of relief I felt afterward.  My stomach had been in knots, and I had been ignoring the cacophony of doubt clamoring in the background chatter in my head all morning.  Finally the din was silenced.
     HazMat fingerprinting was next.  Gone are the days of ink pads and manila paper.  This was way cool--machine-generated imaging.  The woman wipes your hands with a wet wipe and places your fingers on an imaging screen.  Your fingerprint shows up on another screen instantly and the machine beeps to tell the attendant when it has captured an acceptable record.  We're now being run through the government databases to confirm that we are not terrorists out to crash trucks loaded with explosives into the Pentagon.  Nitric acid can only be stacked two levels high for transport, in case you need to know that ever. 

Monday, February 14, 2011


     I remember this feeling...this feeling of free-falling.  It's the very elusive sensation one chases for most of one's adult life.  It comes only at sporadically spaced intervals, most often after great upheaval, turnoil, hard work or intense change...and is akin to the feeling a grade-school child experiences on the last day of school when the bell rings and suddenly before them stretches the endless spanse of Summer!!
     There are a few of us who have built our lives around chasing this sensation-it's a drug, an addiction.  There are many facets to explore, and each time they lead our lives in new and unimaginable directions.  First comes the dream.  We all have them, and if you think you don't, dig back into your childhood; you had them then, and you are that same person now, only more stinted, censored and in control.  What child in the 70's (before the days of backseat buckles and carseats) didn't hang over the backseat of their daddy's station wagon pulling an imaginary truckhorn in hopes of hearing the deep, powerful blast of the horn as a trucker passed?  Who wasn't thrilled by seeing all the trucks roll as one in the movie "Convoy"?  Pick a dream, any dream, and chase it.  I mean really chase it.  What's it going to take to make it happen? What does success look like? Study the strategy of Muhammed Ali.  Set your sights, gain your vision, allow no room for doubt.
     That brings us to the next step, the Plan, so amazingly intricate and balanced.  The Plan must allow for ebb and flow and yet provide structure and stability.  Think Frank Lloyd Wright here, people.  You can't skimp on the Plan.  Live it, feel it, eat it, Breathe it.  Let it grow you.  Yes, let IT grow YOU.  Pour yourself into the Plan with everything you have for this is your investment--what kind of return do you want?  You want a lucrative return; you want happiness; you want satisfaction; you want authenticity.  It is this very sacrifice to the Plan that sets the freefall into motion.  Once all the pieces start sliding into place, you're off the edge of the cliff.

Zygote and I were married on January 29th, 2011.   By Valentine's Day we were starting our first day of CDL school.