By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 2/21/2020
Topics/Keywords: #18-Wheeler #BigRigs #Schneider #TruckDriver #TruckDriving Page Views: 273
An entry from Alternate Roads: Paul S. Cilwa's Truck Drivin' Journal

Friday, March 21, 2003

I (or we, if you include my rider, Lloyd) had two stops today, both for Sears: One in Spokane, and one in the little town of Colville, north of Spokane.

The Spokane stop was a challenge. Spokane itself is not a young city; and the streets have barely been modernized enough to accommodate the internal combustion engine, much less 53-foot trailers. Backing into the Sears loading dock, which was inside their warehouse, involved stopping street traffic while I attempted to navigate into the large doorway that separates their internal loading dock from the street. I anticipated it being a problem, but surprised myself when the whole operation went smoothly. Sears loads are entitled to unloading assists from the driver, but most Sears stores don't actually want one. I offered, and was told to just wait in my truck, which I did—happily.

I was a little concerned that Lloyd would find the wait boring, though how I would know this I couldn't tell. He still didn't really speak to me in anything other than a monosyllabic monotone, and only in response to direct questions. However, he decided to go on a walk in the neighborhood. This was a neighborhood of small warehouses, a block from a main street. It couldn't have been too exciting; but I could certainly understand his wanting to be out! of the truck after all the hours he'd spent cooped up in it with me.

Afterwards, we headed north on Division Street until it became countrified, and drove through a few more, quaint, Washington State towns until we arrived in Colville. Our target store, a Sears appliance outlet, was located on the cross street that shared a traffic light with the main street, one of several stores in an old-style shopping center. Its loading dock was on the east side of the building, an external dock with a sunken ramp. I had to drive into the shopping center parking lot and straight-line back into the dock—normally the easiest kind of backing maneuver, but tricky this time because there was a metal post next to the building that I had to dodge. The post was there, presumably, to keep trucks from backing too close to the building wall. But it left very little room.

Lloyd offered to get out and make sure I didn't hit anything, an offer I accepted. In addition, the two male employees who were going to unload the trailer, stood on the dock, guiding me back. Both were young and attractive, and I wasn't fooled by Lloyd's offer: I was sure he'd be looking at the young men with a lot more fervor than he would devote to the backing of my truck. Oh, well. He had wanted to come on this trip to experience truck driving, but how could that compete with the sight of muscular young men?

So anyway, with three pairs of arms directing me, I backed into the dock. As I had at the first stop, I offered to help unload; these guys were happy to have the assistance. I didn't mind; it would pay me $40 and there wasn't much left in the trailer, anyway. With three of us loading boxes on dollies and rolling them into the building, it didn't take long to complete the job. Especially when the manager joined his employees for the last couple of pallets' worth of boxes.

Lloyd, who was wearing sandals, had been asked by one of the young employees to stand aside so he wouldn't get hurt. The youngest employee, named Caleb, was small but immensely strong; he lifted air compressors and water heaters as if they were model cars. I wasn't the only one impressed; his partner, Gordo, exchanged amused looks with me whenever Caleb picked up another insanely heavy carton.

Gordo was quite good-looking for a kid in his late twenties, and his looks weren't lost on Lloyd, who suddenly developed the ability to converse in his presence. Somehow the topic of Donny Osmond came up.

"I saw him in person," Lloyd said.

"Did you," Gordo replied, politely.

"It was at a taping of Wheel of Fortune," Lloyd explained. "I also like his sister, Marie Osmond. Have you heard of her?"

"Marie Osmond?" Gordo echoed, raising an eyebrow. "Yeah, I've heard of her." He said this in the same tone in which he'd have uttered the same sentence, if the subject had instead been the Blessed Virgin Mary.

"My mother has a collection of Marie Osmond dolls," Lloyd continued. I was transfixed. It was like listening to a car accident. "I tried to get her to give me one, but she said, 'No way!' So I guess I'll have to wait until she dies to get them."

Gordo slipped me a sideways glance that said, "Where did you get this guy?" I grinned apologetically and shrugged, and returned to the task of removing the last boxes from the trailer.

Finally, done, I obtained the signed bill of lading (with the "driver assist" notation that would pay me that $40) from Caleb, and began to pull forward into the parking lot so I could close the trailer doors. Suddenly the manager appeared alongside my door.

"Say, driver," he said, "you hit my roof."

"What?" I asked. "When?" I was certain I had cleared it on my way out; and I had three witnesses to my clearing it on the way in.

"When you backed in," he said. "Here, take a look." I got out of the cab, and he led me to the loading dock ramp. There was an aluminum frill that encircled the building, located just below and within the eaves. It was purely ornamental and, sure enough, someone's truck or trailer had caught one of the aluminum panels and scrunched it up. But I didn't see how it could have been mine; and I said so.

"It was you," the manager insisted. "See the panel next to the badly scrunched one? The one that's bent out a little? That was hit before, but you caught the other one today."

"You're sure?" I said. It was an odd situation. I was certain I was in the right; yet I didn't want to alienate a good customer like Sears. I tried to sound assertive without seeming uncooperative or confrontational.

"Yes," he said. "This roof has been hit five times," he added, as if the frequency of accidents would make my having one seem more likely. "So, I need you to call this in, please."

"I'll call it in," I promised. "I'll take photos, too." I took out the little disposable camera Schneider gives us for documenting "incidents" and again approached the damaged section of roof. There were no fresh striations in the metal; no bright spots. The metal appeared to have been scraped at least a week ago; the damage had already weathered. Then I took photos of the trailer: No marks, fresh or otherwise, in the metal lining its upper wall. I was lucky; most of the trailers have been involved in incidents and it would be hard to prove one of them hadn't happened today. But not this time.

Finally, I got a shot of the side of the trailer, showing how it was lined up with the dock, and not with the roof. It also showed the metal post. Having missed the post, it would have been hard to clip the roof if I'd wanted to.

I sent in the Qualcomm message to Schneider's Claims department, and in moments received a reply asking me to call. There were payphones at the shopping center, so I called right away. The first thing Lisa, the woman who answered, did was to thank me for taking the detailed photos. I told her the story, much as I have here, and she wrote it down. Finally, she said that Claims might call me on Monday for more information, but otherwise to not worry about it. "It sounds like the manager just wanted to get his roof fixed for free," she said.

I shrugged. "Maybe. Or maybe he honestly hadn't noticed that damage before. Certainly, someone hit the roof; and the odds are good it was a Schneider truck since we do so much Sears' business. All I know," I added, "is that it makes no sense for two of his employees to watch me back up, and act like I had not hit something while they were watching if I did, and to not say a thing about it to me in the forty-five minutes we spent unloading the thing together. And the manager wasn't even there while I was backing in."

I was still fuming when the Qualcomm beeped again with another incoming message. I expected to receive more information on the "incident", but, instead, it was my next work assignment…one that would allow me to meet a very special friend for the first time.

When I first started investigating truck driving, I stumbled on a web site called High Mountain Ranch, owned by a gay, writing, truck driver named Tim Anderson. I was so blown away by the quality and artistry of his writing, I was compelled to send him an email telling him so. In the weeks that followed, Tim and I developed an email correspondence in which we discussed everything from trucking to religion. And then, the emails evolved into phone calls. I knew that, someday, we would meet. But when?

As it happens, Colville is about an hour and a half from Tim's ranch. I had called to tell him where I was. "Maybe they'll give you the paper mill for your next load," he suggested. "A shit load of Schneider trucks leave from there every day, and it's just a few minutes from my house."

"We'll see," I said. "You know, I can't control what load they give me…"

But now, looking at the Qualcomm, I could see that Schneider had, indeed, given me that very assignment. I was to drop off the empty trailer at the paper mill, and pick up a loaded one any time the next day. I called to let Tim know, and he immediately invited Lloyd and me to spend the night at his ranch. "We can go into town for pizza," he added, not that I needed to be bribed.

The trip to Pend Oreille (pronounced "Ponderay") Valley should not be brushed off. The countryside is beautiful, haunted, unique (although it does remind me a lot of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, where I lived several years as a child). It had been drizzling off and on all day; and the low cloud ceiling and patches of fog added to the mysterious aura of the landscape. The sun set about halfway into the trip, so that it was dark when we arrived at the paper mill. The guard allowed us to drop the empty trailer, even though we would not pick up the loaded one until tomorrow. That was essential, since I'd been warned there would be no place to turn a full rig around on top of Tim's mountain.

The drop completed, we continued on, following Tim's directions. Well, maybe not following them perfectly; I found myself in the wrong spot at one point and called him again as I made a three-point U-turn. "We can see you below us," he laughed from his perch on the mountain on the other side of the river. I wasn't laughing, though, as I felt the truck sliding off the road into the muddy ditch. I switched on the Drive Differential Lock and the drive wheels caught on something and the sliding stopped.

What a way to impress the First Gay Trucker, patron saint of all of us who follow in his footsteps!

Anyway, by the time we hit the roof of his mountain, it was too late to "go out" for pizza. Fortunately, Tim had anticipated this (probably when he saw me making the U-turn) and had sent one of his friends out to buy some. He had a couple of pals visiting, one from Texas and one from Canada—one of the benefits of truck driving, of course, is making friends of people from all over. We ate pizza; we watched a couple episodes of the TV series Six Feet Under, we toured Tim's beautiful home (which he designed), and Tim and I chatted about our writing, alternate earths, and the problem with cougars in the neighborhood. He invited us to sleep in the house; and Lloyd accepted. But I politely declined. "I appreciate your hospitality," I said, sincerely. "But the bunk in my truck…well, it's my bed. I'll be more comfortable there."

Tim's grin let me know he understood exactly what I meant.

Saturday, March 22, 2003

The next morning, Tim had warned us, he had to leave early in order to attend his niece's first birthday in Seattle. I wanted to leave early, as well; so that was no problem. Tim intended to drive away by eight so I set my alarm for 7:30 am.

Tim actually wound up leaving around 9 am, while I was still putting the finishing touches on my log book, figuring out the route for our next assignment, and so on. Finally, I was ready to go. Lloyd and I took one, final look down at the Pend Oreille River; I started the truck, and attempted to turn it around.

Tim had warned that the ground would not be firm enough to support the truck; I'd have to do my turning on the road or driveway. One of his guests suggested I simply drive around the woodpile, but Tim thought it would be too tight a turn for the truck. However, as I looked at the loop around the enormous pile, it didn't seem so tight to me. Besides, I couldn't really see any other possibilities. The best place would have been the spot where Tim's pickup was parked, except that his pickup was parked there. So I decided to try for the woodpile loop.

I made it three-quarters of the way around, before the tractor's steer tires sunk into the muck just off the packed earth of the drive. The drive tires spun uselessly, whether or not I engaged the Drive Differential Lock. I tried putting some firewood under the drives, in hopes the additional traction was all they needed; but no luck. We were there for keeps.

I sighed deeply, and sent a Qualcomm message to Road Repair, asking for a tow truck. When the answer finally arrived, I was given an estimated time of arrival of over two hours later. It seems the nearest towing company capable of working with big rigs was based in Spokane.

So, Lloyd and I sat in silence, waiting for rescue. As minutes passed and neither of us said anything, I thought I'd like to do some writing. That's what I would normally do while waiting for a tow truck. But Lloyd would just sit there. "This'd be a good time for a walk," I suggested. I had discovered I felt inhibited writing while he did nothing but stare at me or out the window. Besides, Lloyd had wanted to see the country and this way, he could actually walk on some of it.

"What about the cougars?" he replied nervously. Tim had told us that there were cougars in the area, and in fact I had seen one on our way up his mountain—I had thought it was a really big, oddly shaped dog.

"Well, there probably isn't one right here," I said, though Tim had mentioned one that had lived under his porch in the extreme winter of 1997. "And, if you see one, just don't turn your back on it. Yell or something, and I'll blow the truck's air horn. That will probably distract it long enough for you to make it to the truck." Lloyd just looked at me as if I were demented, and remained in the truck.

"Okay," I said finally, cracking under the pressure. "What do you want to talk about?"

"Talk?" He said this as if I had suggested we float into the air together.

"Yeah. Like, a conversation."

Lloyd shrugged.

"We've…never talked about your HIV status," I said, unable to think of one other aspect of this young man's life that he might want to discuss. The fact was, after nearly two weeks in the truck together, I still knew almost nothing about him.

"What's to talk about?" he said listlessly.

"Well, how long since you found out you had it?" I persisted.

"Five years," he answered.

I did the math. "You were twenty. Out of high school two years."

He nodded.

"How do you feel about it?" I asked. I know, it sounds like a stupid question. But there's a wide range of emotions likely to be found around this condition: Anger, fear, regret… and I was hoping Lloyd would actually open up a little, and talking about how he felt might encourage that.

"Sad," he admitted. "Pointless."


"Like, why do anything? Why make an effort?"

"Do you think you don't have long to live?" I asked.

He shrugged. He still didn't seem to display any emotion.

"'Cause you know," I continued, "there's people who've had HIV for over twenty years, and are just as healthy now as they were when they first got it."

"I know that," Lloyd said impatiently.

"Then what don't you think is worth the effort?"

He said something, but I couldn't make it out, it was so faint. I had to ask him to repeat.

"Falling in love," he whispered.

I had to fight the effort to hug him. He seemed so much like one of my own kids in trouble. But he wasn't my kid, or anyone's any more; and the trouble he was in wasn't something that a hug would make all right. "Have you been in love?" I asked.

He nodded.

"Long ago?"

"Last year," he said.

I mentioned the names of a couple of guys I knew he had dated, but he told me I didn't know the person. "He was an older guy," Lloyd explained. "About 35. We went together for a few months. But then he said I was too young for him. And that was it. He wouldn't call me back."

"What about…" and I named the man he called several times every day.

"We're just friends," he said.

"But you call him every day, at all hours, and talk for ever." On my phone.

"We're just friends," Lloyd repeated. And, while it was clear that he wanted more, I had no way of knowing whether his friend had more to give. And, in any case, as much as I wanted to make things all right for Lloyd, there was, after all, nothing I could do. I had only signed up to give Lloyd this tour of the country; and that was where my responsibility—and ability—ended.

Finally, the tow truck arrived. The driver looked with some dismay at the fix I'd gotten myself into; but finally came up with a strategy. His tow truck was much longer than my truck; he had to back a quarter mile to a T in the road, turn around there, return backwards to Tim's yard, get past Tim's pickup without hitting it, a tree or the lamppost, and then work up a pulley system for his chain to give my truck the yank it needed to get out of the mud. All this was done in a soaking rain. But it worked, and soon we were ready to continue on our way, to pick up the load I had hoped to get in the early morning. It was now almost 4 pm.

We were facing the Pend Oreille River, lying a thousand feet below us; and just as I put the truck in gear, the clouds parted and the sun burst through. The very air seemed to sparkle. The beauty of the pines lining the hills, the now-brilliant sky, and the shimmering river below caused me to hold my breath. It felt like looking down from the roof of the world. In that moment of suspension, Lloyd whispered my name. He hadn't done that since we'd left Phoenix, almost two weeks before. I turned to look him in the eye. His face was suffused with a brilliant smile, as brilliant as the sunshine outside. "Paul," he grinned. "I'm having a great time!"

What did it matter if he wasn't having what I would call a great time? In his world, in his body, if enjoying himself meant feeling free to watch videos in the back of the truck, sleep for hours during the day, and occasionally look out at the scenery—if that's what constituted a "great time" for him, who was I to argue?

And if I could contribute to his having that "great time", even if it was in spite of my efforts to get him to enjoy himself in a way that I would—well, then I was being of service. I was doing all I could.

And it was enough. From my vantage point at the roof of the world, looking down, I could see that life is made of mostly little moments, rather than great ones, and that the little moments, like Lloyd's, are really what make the world what it is…and that's mostly, a good one.

The words of an old song echoed in my mind.

On the roof, that's the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so
Let's go up on the roof.