By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 2/21/2020
Occurred: 8/9/2002
Posted: 8/16/2002
Topics/Keywords: #18-Wheeler #BigRigs #Schneider #TruckDriver #TruckDriving Page Views: 240
My first week of on-the-road training.

Friday, August 9, 2002

I met my training engineer in the Schneider OC cafeteria at 1 pm, as arranged. We had planned to leave immediately, but it didn't work out that way.

Since my experiences with this TE were not all good (though certainly not all bad!), I will mask his name and other details and call him "Nelson".

We had a load to pick up, but no empty trailer to put it in. It took us several hours to locate an empty trailer on the Schneider lot, which must have had dozens of them. Finally we did, though, and although I knew how to couple a trailer, for time's sake Nelson did it (though it would have been good practice for me, and not have taken that much longer). This was a harbinger of what was to come.

The empty had to be driven to a town nearby for loading, and Nelson did that, too. He wanted me to "watch him," and learn from that. I agreed to try, though I'm more of a hands-on guy. While we drove, Nelson told me why he had become a training engineer, explaining how his TE had never let him actually do things himself, and how he thought the student needed more actual driving opportunities. That disarmed me, somewhat. After all, we were in a hurry to get this load and I did understand, the load comes first.

When we got to the loading dock, the backing into the dock would have been quite tricky and I didn't mind that Nelson did it. Actually, there was already a Schneider driver just arriving when we got there, who took at least fifteen pull-ups (that's moving forward to get in a better position before getting back into reverse) to get into his dock. I certainly didn't want to look that bad!

The loading, literally, took two or three hours. It was a load of windows destined for a motor home manufacturer. I winced at the irony: I, who used to teach Windows, was now going to be delivering windows. Nelson and I went over some of the paper work, then got into our separate bunks to nap while waiting. Eventually, the loading was complete and we were ready to go. Again, Nelson drove.

The load was headed for Wyoming, and Nelson did have me calculate the route, using the trip planning skills so recently honed in JumpStart. It involved our passing through Las Vegas, then Mesquite, NV, Utah, and, finally, Wyoming. Part of trip planning includes calculating fuel and sleep spots, but Nelson did that—he already knew where he wanted to stay, and that was it.

Well, it was his truck.

We went through a weigh station, and, finally, Nelson let me drive. He had turned the wheel over to me just as we were about to hit a steep, mountain pass. Later, I was to see the pattern: There are certain types of driving Nelson isn't very comfortable with, and he made sure I was behind the wheel for them. Mountain driving was one.

We hit the Las Vegas border in time for dinner, and that's when Nelson informed me, "I don't like to have food in the truck. I eat out every meal, and there's a terrific buffet right here." Since I, essentially unemployed since 9/11, was almost completely broke, I wasn't happy to hear this. I had gotten a $50 advance for food for this week, and it wasn't going to last if I ate out every meal.

The buffet was good, however. And, afterwards, Nelson led me to a built-in mall so he could see if a sale on orange T-shirts was still in progress. "Life on the road has to be fun," he said, "or else there's no point in doing it." He said this with great enthusiasm, though so far all I could see that he did for fun was eat at buffets and shop in malls.

Finally we arrived in Parawan, UT, where the Truckstops of America (TA) was located at which we intended to spend the night. Nelson set up his satellite TV antenna, turned on his TV, and settled in for the evening. I sat for awhile in the drivers' lounge with my laptop, writing.

Saturday, August 10, 2002

The next day was relatively uneventful. In the morning, Nelson and I showered (separately of course) in the TA showers. When you buy $50 worth of diesel fuel, which we had done, you get a coupon good for one or two showers (which accommodates team drivers). Both being morning shower people, we did that in the morning. The showers were clean, we were given fluffy towels to dry with, and it was a good start for the day.

Yesterday, I drove a little over three hours; today, I drove six without a break. I would have liked a break, but we covered hundreds of miles, seemingly, without rest areas. (If I had been desperate enough, I could have left the Interstate and gone to a truck stop, but I wasn't and it's such a hassle to leave the road and get back on, that one tends to avoid it if possible.) Highway driving is pretty easy, really. I'm certainly not doing it perfectly, but the mistakes I'm making are minor ones. I have more of a problem down-shifting when I get to highway exits and stop signs. Nelson thinks its because I haven't memorized the shift pattern, but he's wrong. The real problem is that I don't know when to slow down to begin with. I haven't yet learned how long it takes the truck to slow down in response to a given pressure on the break. When I ask about it, Nelson just replies, "It depends," and then tells me to memorize the shift pattern.

Sleeping in the truck was easy. The bunk is comfortable, even the upper bunk where I'm sleeping. Last night we "idled" (left the motor running all night); the air conditioning got carried away and it got too cold. Tonight the air is a comfortable temperature so we're planning to leave the windows open.

We try to spend the night at a Truckstops of America, where we can get free showers in exchange for buying fuel there. However, tonight we are at a Flying J, so there will be no showers until tomorrow. (There were no TAs nearby.)

This load will have taken us over 1000 miles, and our leisurely route will have taken two days of driving (plus a couple extra hours). That means we might possibly run 3000 miles this week. At my mileage rate, that would equal $750 pre-tax dollars for the week, and Nelson tells me 5000 miles a week is more likely. It's a lot less money than I made teaching, but it's nothing to sneeze at. He says he, too, was in financial straits when he started, and it takes about ninety days to get caught up.

He also told me I was his third student, and he's been a truck driver only six months! I was surprised; I'd been told one had to be a driver for Schneider at least a year before becoming an instructor.

I saw some beautiful country today. There is an incredibly beautiful pass northeast of Salt Lake City where we got on I-80. It was a challenging drive, but breathtaking. And I've never been to this part of Wyoming; it is also fantastic, with wind-carved sandstone pillars and buttes revealing many-colored layers of fossilized sediment. Nelson let me drive pretty much all the way. As long as we stay on the highway it's no challenge and I'm not learning much, exactly; but I've always enjoyed driving for its own sake so I don't mind. Besides, one of the purposes of the OTR (over-the-road) training is to build up my stamina for long-distance driving and we're certainly doing that.

The wind blows constantly here. It can get dangerously strong, so there are wind breaks built here and there along the road. They look like angled fences, but they redirect the wind so that it flows over the roofs of the vehicles on the road. They call it the "friendly wind of Wyoming." It's most friendly to the animals in winter; it blows the snow away, so for thousands of years, herds have migrated to Wyoming in winter where the vegetation is still exposed and available for food.

Sunday, August 11, 2002

Well, today was probably as typical a truck drivin' day as I'm likely to experience.

It started with the drive to Casper, WY, with the load of windows for a motor home manufacturer. That went uneventfully, though they did take their time unloading the trailer—it took the two full hours estimated. But, long before they even started, Nelson and I had received our next assignment: A truckload of hay, located a little over 200 miles away.

The drive there was breathtaking. Wyoming has fantastic scenery. It's almost like driving through a planet-sized version of Grand Canyon, filled with turrets and towers layered with reds, blues, browns and yellows. Here and there, rivers and lakes add to the color by reflecting the sky, which was alternately sunshiny blue and laden with heavy clouds. We drove through an incredible place called Wind Canyon, and through Thermopolis, home of the world's largest mineral hot spring. Did we stop? No; we were on a tight schedule, trying to get the trailer to the hay shipper by 6 pm. But I'll remember they exist and plan to return.

(In fact, driving through Thermopolis, I had the odd thought that I would live there someday.)

We got to Burlington, WY, at exactly 6 pm. It took three hours for the shipper to load all the bales of hay into the trailer. His farm is situated on a beautiful spread of land; but his son explained to me that most of it cannot be farmed. "Here in Wyoming," he said, "most of it's badlands. There's just these little pockets of green here and there."

The farmhouse was nestled between two hills, at the base of a stretch of hills, "badlands", overlooking the meadow in which the hay had been grown, and beyond that at multilayered mesas and an odd, enormous, wall of stone. "What is that?" I asked, and was told it was a great dam that had been built just a few years earlier. Since it rose far above our heads, I said, "So…we're hoping the dam won't give way, right?"

The son shook his head. "We're in Wyoming's worst drought in sixty years. The water on the other side of that dam is too low to drown us, even if there was a breach."

Finally, at nine o'clock, we were ready to leave…except the truck wouldn't start. An investigation revealed that our fuel line had broken. Nelson called Schneider emergency repair, who told him that this was a "common" problem and they would send someone to fix it…tomorrow. We limped into the nearest town, a place called Meeteetse, ate dinner and got a room in a motel, since it wasn't really safe to sleep in the cab of a truck that's leaking diesel fuel. Nelson assured me the motel would be covered.

Dinner was at a place our shipper had recommended, the Elkhorn Bar. We were the only customers and, in fact, they were about to close when we walked in; but they stayed open for us. The food was good (I had fried shrimp; Nelson had a cheeseburger) and the surroundings were interesting: No fewer than sixteen mounted animal heads. They were mostly elk, antelope and deer; but there was also a caribou, a bear, a rabbit, and even a cow. I asked about it: "Is that a cow?"

Bob, one the owners (along with his wife, Alice Faye), couldn't make out my question. In fact, as the evening progressed, we discovered that he was quite deaf, having lost his hearing through years of firing shotguns and rifles at elk, antelope, and deer. So, his wife answered: "That's a Holstein steer."

I nodded. "So…when's the hunting season for that?"

"No hunting season," she explained, shaking her head. "We have a friend who started his own trucking company, and Holstein steers were his first cargo."

"So…what? He just shot one of them as a trophy?"

It took awhile for Alice Faye to admit that her friend had, apparently, simply run over the creature. I'm still not sure if it was intentional or not.

Anyway, walking to the motel from the truck, the Big Dipper hung spectacularly overhead. Nelson gasped. "I've never been so close to it before!" All the stars were amazingly bright. And we had no idea when we would be able to leave Meeteetse.

Monday, August 12, 2002

This morning, after a leisurely night's sleep in Meeteetse, WY, Nelson started work immediately trying to find someone who could repair the leaky diesel fuel line on our truck. Schneider was notified via the satellite hookup in the cab, and Nelson also talked to the repair department on the phone; the nearest pre-authorized repair person was over one hundred miles away from us. So they told Nelson to try and find someone locally.

So, here we are, in a Mayberry-like town (Mayberry was larger) that actually doesn't have a single ATM…without much cash, without a working vehicle, and with a truckload of hay that needs to get to Denver. Sounds bleak, doesn't it?

Adding to the bleakness, today was Michael's and my wedding anniversary. I managed to call and say hello, and wish him a happy day. But I would have preferred being with him, instead of with the increasingly annoying Nelson.

But Bob, the guy who owned the motel we stayed at, recommended his pal, Don, for repairs. Don was called, and promised to be by in an hour. After an hour or so, impatient, Nelson started calling repair shops in neighboring towns. I say, "neighboring," but they were actually from thirty to sixty miles from us, and would only come to us for $500 or more—and that didn't include the repair itself! Another company wanted to tow us 100 miles to them.

But then, Don showed up, and wound up being a perfectly good mechanic who preferred to work on the truck where we'd parked it ("My yard is small," he explained). Don was about my age, with the very full Wyatt Earp moustache most of the local men (and one or two of the women) preferred to wear. Nelson expressed concern over the diesel fuel we'd already leaked into the ground. "If the D.O.T. finds out about it, we're screwed," he remarked, laughed, and added, "I'm the local D.O.T. inspector," Don grinned. "Don't worry." He predicted he'd have us back on the road by late afternoon, and suggest we spend the intervening time enjoying Meeteetse.

The town's name means "meeting place" in the language of the Shoshone people who were native to the place. We ate lunch at the Cowboy Café, outside of which, in 1897, Butch Cassidy was once arrested. Our waitress recommended we see the museum to pass the time.

The museum is actually two museums, combined. The front is dedicated to Charles Belden, a man who arrived in the area in the 1920s and took photographs, using the cumbersome equipment of the time. He had studied at Boston's MIT, but became pals with a fellow student from Meeteetse, whose sister Belden later married. That brought him into Wyoming, and made him part of the family's Pitchfork Ranch. He grew to know the cowboys, the sheep, the herds, and the land as no outsider could and used this intimacy to create photographs of surpassing majesty and beauty.

Long, Long Trail A-Winding, Charles Belden

If a picture can't tell a story, there ain't no point in takin' it.

Charles Belden

Call Of The Wild, Charles Belden

One that particularly struck me was entitled, "Call of the Wild." The background was a typical Wyoming mountainside, rocky, precipitous. In the foreground was the head of a Holstein steer caught in the act of bellowing. Somehow, some element of the bull's ancestral genes became exposed and you could feel his frustration at the life of bovine luxury in which he suddenly found himself entrapped with no hope of escape.

The Rescue, Charles Belden

Another photo, which was the favorite of the woman who interpreted the museum, was simplicity itself. Skeletal trees, caught in their winter nakedness, formed a stark backdrop to a man on horseback. The man's head was bowed, from cold or fatigue or both, and the horse trudged through the snow. Fog obscured the top and bottom of the photo, leaving just the trees and the snow in the same surreal isolation that you know the cowboy himself was experiencing as he made his way back to the bunkhouse after an exhausting day's work on that cold, January day in the 1930s.

Belden even met and photographed Amelia Earhardt, who fell in love with Meeteetse and decided to buy a ranch there after she returned from her around-the-world flight. (Of course, she never returned.)

As the years passed, however, the idyll faded. Belden's wife died; her family sold the ranch; Belden went to St. Petersburg, Florida, to retire and found the "city of the living dead" a poor substitute for the life he had left behind. In 1966, he put a bullet in his brain.

I can’t tell you how affected I was by Belden’s photography and his life story. He had come from Boston. Was it frightening for him to move to Wyoming? How different, in the 1920s, Wyoming must have seemed than Boston! And yet, he was young; to the young, everything seems to be an adventure and Wyoming was just another amazing place in an amazing world. Decades later, the change from Wyoming to Florida shouldn’t have been any more threatening…but now, he was older, and resisted the change. As a result, it became unbearable. As I stand poised before a new career I never expected (or even wanted) to have, I realize that it's attitude that will make all the difference. It can be an adventure or a torment; but which is entirely up to me.

In the second museum, behind the Belden section, were artifacts from Meeteetse's frontier era—and later. It mostly seemed to be castoffs from people's attics. Yes, there was a cast iron wood cooking stove and a "Laun-Dry-Ette" whose manual boasted that "Rheumatism Gets No Encouragement Here!". There was also an old electric phonograph, a Bell and Howell reel-to-reel tape recorder, and a recording of an "eye witness account!" of the burning of the Hindenburg (which, if I recall correctly, did not occur in the skies of Meeteetse).

After we toured the museum, we wandered down to the Greybull river (the bridging of which, in the 1890s, actually formed the town of Meeteetse since it encouraged the founding of businesses). I strolled along the bank; then we returned to the truck to find Don completing his repairs a couple of hours early. For work we estimated most repairmen would have charged $400 for, he billed us $149.41.

Nelson wanted to drive, to make sure his truck (which he refers to as "she" and has named "the bitch"—obviously a love/hate relationship) was okay. So he was behind the wheel all the way back to Casper. I already knew, from the evening before when we drove into Meeteetse with the ailing truck, that Nelson wasn't comfortable with night driving. So it didn't surprise me when he let me take over, driving at night for the first time. It turned out to be no big deal, not really different from night driving in a car…except that cars' headlights do not aim high enough to blind me.

We made our goal, Cheyenne, and parked at the TA truck stop.

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

We've now had time to hold a few conversations while tooling down the road.

Nelson has had quite a life. He was born in Taiwan, lived in Hong Kong, and moved to the United States only about twenty years ago—which explains his accent, in which a frantic "Turn left!" sounds exactly the same as a frantic "Turn right!" He was a successful car salesman (same as my friend Wayne from the 11 Days of Training) until 9/11, then immediately starting driving truck.

I did not tell my TE I was gay. I thought about it, but I just didn't feel as if we were beginning a long-term friendship; there would have been no point. We did talk about UFOs and the theory that the Sumerian civilization was created by aliens. Except for his craning his neck to stare at every young blonde female within 1000 feet and trying to engage my enthusiasm, his didn't spend a lot of time flaunting his heterosexuality at me.

The truck has bunk beds, and the trainee is expected to sleep in the top bunk. I normally sleep nude, but at first I wore gym shorts rather than risk my TE's later wondering what I was up to if he should ever learn my sexual orientation. However, in the entire time we were together, I never had occasion to see any part of him I wouldn't see at the beach, nor did he of me. The fact is, you'd have to go majorly out of your way to peer into the lower bunk from the upper bunk, or vice versa. When I suspected my TE was changing shorts or whatever in the space between the bunks and the seats, I just rolled on my side so my back was towards him. I let him get dressed in the morning first, then hopped out of my bunk and followed.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Today we drove to Denver and picked up a load at Ralston Purina that was supposed to take two hours to load—and took five. I didn't mind too much; I slept. But Nelson is getting paid by the mile and thus is not paid for load time. (He later told me he had requested "delay pay" and gotten $40.)

This load is only going as far as Salt Lake City, not a great distance but it seems that Nelson has a child-support court date coming up and must be in California by Monday. Knowing that, his STL (service team leader—dispatcher, in other words) was giving him loads that would bring him closer.

Things are getting more strained between us. He hates it when he tells me something, and I blurt out, "But in class, they told us…" The fact is, he has a different take on almost everything than they did in class, and I don't know who to believe. On the other hand, while checking messages on the Qualcomm (our satellite hookup), I stumbled on one to him from his STL that stated the office wanted to discuss with him his twenty-one log violations. He'd been telling me things about filling out my daily log that conflicted with what they said in class. Now I suspect class may have been right.

For his part, he still thinks my shifting needs work, and I agree—but he won't let me practice it. He wants me to "watch" him do it. Last night I suggested, as we rolled down the highway, that I take every exit and then get back on the highway, just to practice downshifting, stopping, and up-shifting, but he would have none of it. He told me, since he has to be back in California before my two weeks is up, that he is going to recommend I have a "day of remedial" shifting, and a day of backing practice—something he promised we would do when we first started out, but have actually done none of. He doesn't feel I need a whole additional week of OTR training.

Friday, August 16, 2002

The word arrived today that I am to return to Phoenix immediately. As soon as we arrive in Salt Lake City, Nelson is to deliver me to the airport, where I will pick up a pre-paid rental car and drive back home. I'm excited about going home—I haven't been there in two weeks, including the day of my wedding anniversary—but I hadn't expected to leave so soon.

Still, it isn't that soon. I definitely won't miss Nelson's accent, in which all driving commands sound the same, or his treatment of the radio.

Aware that I was visiting someone else's home, I was always careful to let him adjust the radio. I discovered, to my horror, that Nelson likes to leave the thing on whether the station is being received clearly or not, and that he has no understanding whatsoever of the purpose of the tone control, being content to leave it in whatever position he may have knocked it into. When I pointed out that he had the fade control set all the way to the front, and there were rear speakers we could turn on, he was delighted with the result and called it "Sensurround".

Now, I have no idea why a person would choose the tone-deaf lifestyle. Aren't there aversion therapy clinics to force him to listen to music in the normal way? Surely the Bible must have this in its list of "abominations", along with the wearing of cotton-polyester clothes (Leviticus 19:19) or charging interest on a loan (Leviticus 25:37)? In any case, by the time the week was over, if I'd had to get back in the truck with him, I'd have had to kill him.

So, instead, I got into a rental car and drove to Phoenix.

I had a choice of which way to go. The shortest route was through Arizona, on US 89—a beautiful route, I knew, past the Vermillion Cliffs. However, I would be there at night time, and wouldn't be able to see them; there was no reason to take that route for the scenery. But it was also the shortest.

I could also go by way of Las Vegas. That route was 70 miles (one hour) longer. But I would have access to cheap hotels and Nelson's beloved buffets if I went through Nevada. And that's what I decided to do. I planned on spending the night in Mesquite.

About fifteen minutes after I left the airport, I realized that, in my rush to get my stuff out of Nelson's truck, I had forgotten my sandals and my vitamins. Oh, well, I thought. I would get them from him eventually.

I got hungry around 8 o'clock and decided to have dinner at the truck stop in Parawan. I also had a shower coupon, so I took a shower, gassed up, and tried to head out. However, I missed my exit and find myself in the truck parking lot, heading directly toward…Nelson, walking toward the building!

He was, of course, startled to see me. "Did you follow me?" He asked, not realizing that I couldn't have; I had arrived an easy hour earlier, didn't know where he was going, and certainly didn't know he would be at this particular truck stop. "I told you I was psychic!" I laughed, and got my sandals and vitamins before resuming on my way.

When I got to Mesquite—around midnight—the hotel/casino there had only one room left. It was in my price range, but was a smoking room; I didn't think I could handle it. So I decided to go on to Las Vegas, only another hour ahead.

Just before I got to the City of "Lost Wages" the traffic stopped. It just stopped. One o'clock in the morning, and no one was going anywhere. There wasn't even any traffic on the other side of the interstate.

I couldn't imagine an accident so serious that it would tie up both directions.

And then I saw, and heard, the gunshots.

Later, I got the story from a trucker, who'd heard it on his CB. It seems some guy stole a car in Vegas, there was a high-speed pursuit northbound on the highway, the guy rolled the stolen car, but survived—and came out shooting. The police immediately set up a roadblock in both directions, called in the SWAT team and the police negotiator. It took them four hours to apprehend the perp and clear the traffic.

So, as I finally rolled into Las Vegas, the sun was rising as well and it was now too late to actually try and spend the night anywhere. So I kept on driving, wishing like crazy I had taken US 89 and knowing there must have been some reason to my being where I was, when I was. Of course, maybe it was just to get my sandals and vitamins from Nelson in Parawan (and to give him a demonstration of unintended psychic ability).

In any case, I got to Phoenix just after noon, completely wiped out but glad to be home…and ready to meet my new Training Engineer on Monday.