In Joplin

I wanted to miss the morning commute in Oklahoma City this morning so I started driving around 8 AM, to put me in that area around 10 AM. I made it there with no delays then fueled at our designated Pilot truck stop. My fueling suggestions had me fill up there even though I needed only 50 or 75 gallons to get me to Joplin so I assume the price there was lower than that of our home terminal.

There was a lot of construction along I-44 between Tulsa and the Missouri border and a lot of slow traffic narrowing down to single lane driving for much of the way. I patiently plodded along and eventually made my way up to Joplin where I arrived around 2 PM.

My friend Bob (Turtle) was in town so I invited him and two new CFI Crowder graduates to dinner at The Outback. I had a so-so T-Bone and enjoyed catching up and holding forth for a few hours before returning to the truck to clean, do laundry, etc. I told local dispatch I would board in the morning so we’ll see how long it will take to get a load then.

I chanced upon Chaz and Shelly (CRB and CRB Wifey) while I was doing laundry. They are also Crowder graduates and have driven team since finishing. They were notified today they were getting a new truck (their old one had over 350,000 miles on it, about to the point where it will be sold off) and they were in to get it set up the way they want it and move in their gear. They report getting tons of miles, over 25,000 per month, though they spent most of January in the Northwest which they didn’t like much!

Snow and heat

Today I ran almost 700 miles from Winslow, Arizona to Sayre, Oklahoma. I started long before dawn and a few miles outside of Winslow I came across a gigantic freeway traffic jam caused by a wrecked 18 wheeler, evidently with some hazmat. Fortunately it was the westbound traffic that was stopped.

I passed mile after mile of parked and idling big rigs. Almost all of the cars had made u-turns in the median to head back the way they came. Given that this was at about 5 AM local time, that many stopped trucks would indicate hours of traffic being stopped completely. I have a good digital camera but I can’t get good shots at night or I would have stopped to take a picture of miles and miles of stopped bigrigs, their brake lights and chicken lights gleaming off in the distance.

Within the hour the temperature had dropped from just above freezing to just below and I was in near blizzard conditions. Visibility started okay, but eventually required slowing down to 25-30 MPH or so for about a half hour. It remained very cold until the eastern half of New Mexico, but warmed quickly from there through Texas. By the time I arrived in Oklahoma it was 72 degrees out and the air conditioning was on.

Back and a nice long run to Joplin

I went back on duty this morning and was shortly presented with a load going from our Otay Mesa drop yard to our Joplin, Missouri terminal. I was staying down the street at a local truck stop (the only truck stop in San Diego with parking, I think) and made my way over there to get the trailer.

Now, when I was with my finisher he showed me a lot of things, including changing a brake light on his tractor when one went dead. I wish I had paid more attention because all the trailers in this drop yard that have come up from Mexico are stored with their lights removed — when they are in Mexico they have different lights so ours don’t get ripped off. Anyway, after pretripping what I could of the trailer, I had to drag it to the front of the lot and install six lights (two “belly” lights, one in the middle of each long side, and four brake / signal lights in the rear). It was dirty, oily work and my hands were covered with nasty grease and mud afterwards, and I had no way to clean up as well as I would have liked. I did the best I could then stopped at the first rest area east of San Diego for a more thorough cleaning.

I’m hauling 20 tons of rechargeable batteries headed for New Jersey. I’m going to see if I can wheedle the other half of this trip (from Joplin to NJ) when I arrive, which would be a nice long run. This pay period was looking pretty bleak, but if I get either the rest of this run or another good long one it will be a decent one for me. I’m already ahead this month, with a 6,400 mile pay period for the first half.

I saw something unusual today: when I parked this evening in a truckstop I was walking down a line of trucks when the grill of one truck caught my eye. Looking closer, I saw the remains of a good-size bird stuck in it! The wings were still open, in fact it looked amazingly undamaged considering the impact it must have had when it hit. I would have taken a picture but I didn’t have my camera with me and it was on the other side of the truck stop.

Just Another Driving Day

Today was a 400 mile drive from El Paso, TX west along I-10 to Eloy, AZ. I’m on a 760 mile run out to Otay Mesa, CA and I don’t have to be there until tomorrow afternoon, after which I will take several days off. I’ve parked at our authorized fuel stop and rewarded my safe driving with a yummy DQ Blizzard.

I’m hauling a load of toys for Mattel to be delivered Monday. I will drop the trailer at our Otay Mesa drop yard then bobtail to my mother’s place for a couple days of catching up. This is also the first time I’ve had a Bill of Lading written out completely in longhand… they are ordinarily printed up with a few extra things scrawled on them like a signature or weight, then we take the load.

Always remember the kingpin…

This morning I did something stupid, very stupid. I was in the Laredo yard after I dropped the empty trailer I brought down from San Antonio and hooked up (so I thought) to an extremely heavy trailer bound for El Paso. So heavy I couldn’t even get dispatched until after I scaled to make sure I could take it.

Before leaving one of our terminals, company drivers like myself must fill our tanks with diesel, unless weight prohibits it. Since our company buys in bulk, fuel at terminals usually costs less than anyplace we might stop while on the road.

Now, at our terminals the scales we use to measure our weight are just past the fueling islands. Since I had this very heavy trailer that I had to scale first (to see if I could even add more fuel before leaving) I knew I needed to bypass the fuel island, scale, then go back around our parking lot to go fuel. Since it was early in the morning and still dark out, I thought I would pull the trailer up by the fuel islands, use the light there to do my pretrip, then scale, then fuel, then leave. I got as far as the guard shack (just before the fuel island area) and when I was pulling ahead to let him check the seal on the trailer I started hearing a scraping sound.

After moving forward a few feet I realized the scraping sound was coming from the trailer staying in one place while my tractor was moving forward — I was almost about to drop it off of the back of my truck! Needless to say I stopped my truck, popped the brakes and went back to take a look. Yep, I had almost dropped the trailer off the back. It was already off of my fifth wheel and resting on the very back of the truck frame.

Because the trailer was so heavy I could lower the landing gear but not raise up the front end any so we had to have a yard dog (a small truck with a hydraulic 5th wheel used to move trailers around a yard) come over and help out. After a few minutes getting into position and bumping his way under the front of the trailer he managed to get under it and lift it up, then I spun down the landing gear and we got the rig back together.

In retrospect the problem was obvious. When I tested the connection between tractor and trailer when I hooked up I didn’t tug hard enough or get under the trailer far enough when I was outside with my flashlight to make sure the jaws had clamped around the shank of the kingpin. If I had any speed under me when the friction between the fifth wheel and the bottom of the trailer gave way, it would have ripped the air and power lines right off the back of my truck and the trailer would have screeched to a halt on its raised landing gear on a street or freeway somewhere.

Another problem was moving the trailer, even if only to the other side of the yard, before pretripping it completely. I have a good-size flashlight I use when its dark, but I think I’m going to start saving up those reward points for a really big rechargeable model they have at the truckstops. I will also make certain my trailers are securely attached from now on as well!

San Marcos, where art thou?

So I arrive last night in San Antonio, TX to drop off a load of 41,000 pounds of starch to the H.E.B. distribution center. I got assigned a door right away and they had me in and out in 30 minutes, close to a miracle in the land of food warehouses. As I was leaving to head to the closest truck stop for the night I put in my empty call.

About an hour later I get a planned dispatch for a 50 mile deadhead to San Marcos, TX. Looking closer, this isn’t for a load — someone on the trip planning staff figured my requested home time in San Marcos, California had morphed to Texas! After calling in and having it corrected, I went off to bed… only to be awoken this morning to another planned dispatch… deadheading to San Marcos, TX for more time at home!

I messaged back a pithy comment and now the fleet manager is on it. I am dispatched to Laredo, TX, my favorite terminal. Not.

Now the low miles for this past week (barely 1,000) are explained. All this time I was bopping around the midwest was to set me up for hometime in Texas, I guess. Hopefully the next week will make up for this poor one, as we get paid every other week so having one off week doesn’t necessarily blow a paycheck.

Questions Asked and Answered

When I was researching this move to truck driving, I had a lot of questions. I wanted to know things like what companies out there were highly regarded to work for, and why. How much I would be paid for my work. What kind of health care, time off, 401k and other benefits there were. What kind of trucks did each company use, and how well did they maintain them. And so on.

I made a spreadsheet, though you could just as easily use a piece of lined paper I suppose. During my research when I would run across something good, bad or merely informative I would mark it down next to that company and over time patterns started to emerge. For instance, some trucking companies provide their own training (or pay for you to attend a third-party school, or have tuition reimbursement) while others require a certain amount of experience just to apply with them. Most companies prefer to use one or two models of truck in their fleets, so when I found out which ones I marked those down as well.

I quickly discovered that most truckers are paid by the mile at a certain rate. This CPM (cents per mile) ranged from about .25 (25 cents) to .40 (40 cents) depending on experience and the type of trucking you’re hired for. The lowest paid type is also the most common: Dry Van. Vans are those big boxy trucks that everyone is familiar with, which get loaded with just about every commodity imaginable that is in some sort of package or resting on a pallet, or both. Other kinds of trucking include flatbed, tanker and refrigerated. Flatbed work involves a lot of tarping (covering loads to prevent them from getting wet) and securing. Tankers usually involve either chemicals or food grade product (like milk), and are difficult to drive due to the constantly shifting load. Reefer trucks haul all types of frozen stuff, food mostly, and their trailers have their own dedicated cooling equipment which, unfortunately, runs pretty noisily which can suck when you are trying to get a restful sleep.

After I accumulated a lot of information I started weeding out companies that didn’t match up well with my goals. When I got down to about a dozen candidates on my short list I started asking questions on message boards and in chats with drivers and whittled down the list a bit more.

You probably won’t go to this extreme before you enter the industry but I highly encourage you to take a long look at a number of different companies before you choose one to invest your time and effort with.

42,792 Miles and Counting

In the three-and-a-half months since I started driving professionally I have covered 42,792 miles. I haven’t kept close track, but I estimate I have been to 30 or so states in my big rig, and to or through any number of towns and cities. I spent the first 7,500 miles out on the road with my finisher, Rich, who has been driving for CFI for more than a decade. He showed me the ropes, polished off some rough edges (thanks for that backing setup!) and helped me transition to my own truck.

I started driving on the first of December, 2006 and got my own truck two weeks later. As I write this it is the latter half of March and this winter and its awful weather are almost over in most of the US. I’ve driven in all sorts of weather, and pulled it over a few times as well when conditions were unsafe to continue. I’ve been up in the Rocky Mountains over 11,000 feet and below sea level in Death Valley.

Who is behind OTRjournal.com?

My name is Jim. I’m a 38 year old single guy who grew up in northern California. I spent two decades in the IT industry developing software and web sites for a wide variety of companies. I’ve lived and travelled all over the US — indeed, before I began trucking I had already visited 46 of the 48 continental United States. Since I started trucking I’ve been through one of those (South Dakota) and now only North Dakota remains.

I’ve never been married and have no kids, so it is just me and the Vicious Attack Cat out here on the road together. Blaze is her name, and I’ve had her for more than 16 years now. She sleeps while I drive the truck during the day and guards it by night while I sleep. So long as the bandits aren’t smart enough to bring along any treats for her, the truck and I are safe. She may look like a generic tabby, but those who have crossed her before know better.

So, you want to know what trucking is like…

So did I.

This blog and web site exist to chronicle my entry into the OTR (Over The Road) truck driving business. I spent the past twenty years in a different profession and after a series of setbacks and dealing with burnout I decided to make the switch to trucking.

I spent 18 months researching this career. I scoured the internet for chat rooms and forums where professional drivers congregate. I reviewed hundreds of company web sites, government sites dealing with trucking, gripe sites, you name it. I spoke with truckers, recruiters from trucking companies, and representatives from various commercial driver training programs.

Many people, mostly men, enter trucking each year. Most of them also leave the profession in their first year. I’ve been told anecdotally that fewer than one in ten survive the first year, and by the fifth year fewer than one in twenty or so still drive professionally.

Modern trucking isn’t really a “he-man” world any more. Trucks are much more comfortable than they used to be and most truck driving jobs, at least OTR work, don’t involve a lot of loading or unloading of freight. Communications technology has evolved to the point where we can remain connected to the outside world pretty much constantly. Entertainment, like the internet, movies and TV, are easy to bring along on the road. Still, trucking can be a lonely job with a lot of stress, irregular sleep schedules, incompetent dispatchers and planners, uncaring dock workers, uptight police and many more worries. I will try to touch on some or all of these in my posts.