Saturday, February 28, 2009


From The Rumor Mill:

Latest rumor has it that your Dawg *may* just have a new lady friend who lives in a neighboring state. I can neither confirm nor deny this rumor at the present time, due to certain circumstances. Stay tuned to this blog for future developments.

All About T.W.I.C.

Commonly referred to as "TWIC," the new Transportation Worker's Identification Credential is the latest in unfunded official U.S. government red tape that truckers have to deal with. It's an active ID card, similar to a military ID, which identifies truck drivers, longshoremen, and other personnel who work around U.S. ports and allows them access to the secure areas of those facilities without having to have an escort. This is a great convenience when picking up or delivering a load to a port terminal, which is why truckers who go to port facilities are required to have one. Applicants for a TWIC must pass a comprehensive background check by the local cops, state police, FBI, CIA, NSA, Scotland Yard, and Interpol, I think, to insure that they aren't the sort of person who likes to blow things up and watch them go "boom." The card is issued by the U.S. Coast Guard, the program is administered by the TSA (Transportation Screw-up Administration), and you make the money order out to Lockheed-Martin, an aircraft company. It's your government at work, so go figure! The whole gang's in on the act, seems like.

I got TWICed this past Monday, in Chattanooga, the closest local port to where I live. Knoxville is also on the same river, but it's NOT a port -- hmmmmmmmm. Interesting. Wonder what all those tugboats and barges DO, down on our local riverfront here? I applied for my new "security clearance," took a loyalty oath, promised not to tell anyone, on fear of torture and death, and so on. The lady (very pleasant and friendly) told me to check the website in 4 weeks or so, to see if my card is ready to be issued. Then I have to drive down there again, live and in person, to get it activated and finally put the thing in my wallet. It's good for five years and then I'll have to do the same stuff all over again, if I'm still driving at that time. My company DOES reimburse us for the card, and that's the good thing about it, at least. Danged thing set me back $135.00. I pay for my own gas, down there and back, of course. You can't have everything.

Whole application thing took about 20 minutes, fingerprints and all. It's all electronic now -- just stick your hand in a box and she clicks her mouse and voila! Your prints are now in TSA's computer system. This begs a question: Why do you have to do it all over again in five years?? Like your fingerprints change, or something??!! So far as I've ever known, fingerprints are forever! Always stay exactly the same. They already have them on file, so why can't they just pull them back up, run a new check, then renew the freakin' card if everything's okay??

[Offstage Whisper] "Because it's the government, dumbass!!"

Oh, yeah. You got that right! That'd be way too simple for Uncle Sammy and his bureaucratic pencil-pushers in D. C. Logic goes right out the window when the Fed gets involved with anything. Oh, well -- I may go to a port once every two or three years, on average, but by golly, I'll HAVE that thing the next time I pick up a brutally heavy load of tire retreading rubber from Indonesia in N'awlins!! Nope, this Dawg ain't no terrorist, to anything other than mice, rats, and bratty eight-year-olds.

Nagging Trucker Habits

Anybody ever hear of a "ghost trailer?" Well, I pull one behind me, every now and then. This happens most often when I'm bobtailing, but has also occurred while driving my own personal pick-em-up truck. I'll pull all the way out into the middle of the intersection, or opposing turn lane, so that the invisible trailer behind me won't run over the curb, tear a power pole down, or total someone's parked car. On the interstate, this also manifests itself in the form of passing a slower vehicle and continuing on for an eighth of a mile or so, before returning to the right lane again. Don't want to squash any 4-wheelers with that ghost trailer!! ALL truckers have done this at times and any of them who claim they haven't is a damned liar, and I'll call them that to their face! This ghost trailer driving is pure habit, caused by that fifty-three foot boxcar on wheels that follows you around everywhere you go. A good habit, actually, although it may look a little strange to observers who are unfamiliar with trucking.

A common newbie driver habit which afflicted me when I was in my rookie years is speed perception. The larger the vehicle you operate, the less sensation of speed you have. If you've ever stood next to a semi rig, you know how BIG we are. Thus, you don't feel your speed in a Big Truck as much as you do in your SUV or car. Adjusting from one vehicle to the other can take time, and if you also ride a motorcycle, fuggitaboudit!! Climb on that bike (the smallest vehicle on the road) and you feel like you have a rocket strapped to your butt, compared to a car or a semi!

I still fondly remember the first time I got back home for the weekend, after my first full week out on the road. I grabbed my stuff, tossed it in the bed of my Chevy, and headed to the Dawg House. I hit I-75 and motored south, toward town. I held it at a speed which felt the same as the 65 mph I averaged in my Big Truck. Didn't take me long to notice that I was passing an awful lot of other vehicles. "Damn, why is everyone going so slow today?" I asked myself out loud. Then, I looked at my speedometer. Ninety. Er -- uh -- well, I --uh -- guess I'd better slow this thing down a little, before I lose my then-new CDL!! I slowed to a more reasonable 65, watching the speedometer meticulously from then on. Felt like I was doing about 40. Takes some getting used to, let me tell you!!

Saturday, February 21, 2009


In eleven years on the road, I've taken some wild rides at times. I've been blown every which-a-way by tropical storms and the aftermaths of at least two hurricanes. I've been close enough to a tornado to feel the twisting effects of those high-powered storms first-hand and I've soldiered on to many destinations through strong prairie "breezes" that were trying to blow me right off the road into the ditch. I've slogged through sand and mud and mucho snow. An icy road had me creeping down a steep hill one time, with my trailer half-sideways all the way to the bottom of it. And just a few weeks ago, I ran off the pavement in a wet, slushy snow and spent several tense seconds trying to keep my caboose behind me, instead of having it pass me up. I've made it through all of the above somehow unscathed, with God's help and a little driving skill. But in all those years and through all the crap that's come my way, I've never had a wilder ride than I took this past Thursday night and Friday morning. And this one had nothing whatsoever to do with the weather. 

However, it began with weather -- plenty of the nasty winter stuff. I brought a load over from New Joisey (New Jersey, actually) and delivered it in a small northeastern Ohio town, about 60 miles from Cleveland. The weather there on Wednesday was beautiful, considering that I'd driven mostly in light snow in Jersey, and through the mountainous western region of Pennsylvania. Blue skies, bright sunlight -- just great weather for a welcome change. I got my load off in short order and got dispatched very quickly. Only one problem, though -- the new load didn't pick up until Thursday night, in downtown Cleveland,  and then I'd have to do an all-nighter to the destination in Illinois, a few miles from Peoria, since it was due there at 7 A.M. on Friday morning. Oh, well, time to rest awhile. I needed it, since I'd been running like a scared thief all week, up to that point. I headed to the closest truckstop, to take my extended break and on the way I heard the weather folks on a local radio station saying that nasty stuff was headed my way that night and all day Thursday. I looked at the blue sky. Not a cloud in it. Not one. "Are they nuts???!!" I asked myself. It sure looked like anything but snow right then. 

Have you ever noticed that weather forecasters are never wrong when it comes to predicting BAD weather?? They only blow their forecasts out the bathroom window when they predict good weather conditions. It's maddening, but that's always the way it seems to be, ain't it? I shouldn't have questioned their accuracy so glibly, like I did, because when I woke up on Friday morning, Mother Nature had once again taken a dump on the area I was in. It was snowing sideways, very hard, and my truck was parked directly downwind and getting blasted. The flakes looked to be the size of walnuts at times. And the radio weather people were patting themselves on the back and jeering at me:  "See? We told you so, didn't we?? Welcome to our northern Ohio lake effect snowstorms, stranger!!" Lake Erie is just a few miles from where I was and you get some particularly nasty stuff that builds up over that large body of water. 

And some very strange stuff as well. For example, you can drive less than twenty miles in any direction and you might run out of it altogether, into sun and blue skies once again. It snows like an Alaskan blizzard for a half-hour or so, then just tapers off to nothing at all. Just like someone had dumped all the wind and frozen water crystals (snow) out of it completely. Then, just as suddenly as it stopped, it will start up again and resume blasting you just as furiously as before. And that's the way it went, all day long, while I read, napped, and schmoozed in general. The wind was so strong that it blew the flakes to God Knows Where and didn't actually accumulate all that much on the parking lot at all. I went inside at one point and when I came back out, I had a tailwind all the way back to my truck. I think I crossed that lot in ten seconds flat, with the "push" I was getting. If I'd had on skis, I could have glided back, all the way, without moving a muscle, since my body was acting like a big, overweight sail!! Steering might have gotten a little tricky, though. 

Thursday night came and I fueled up during one of the lulls between snow-blasts, then headed west, for the 50 miles to the shipper. I hoped that Cleveland's municipal snow removal crews had cleared the streets during the day, because many of those in-town streets where I was going are decidedly narrow, without much room to allow for any slipping and sliding around the corners. I didn't particularly care to buy the City of Cleveland, Ohio a new power pole or two and I certainly didn't want to cause a localized power outage that would cost some residents their lights and heat. And leave little old me as the scapegoat. But, I needn't have worried, because the roads cleared up nicely just a few miles west of the truckstop in Austinburg and by the time I got to my destination, all the city streets I had to run on were only wet. Very little snow on them at all. 

It was a chemical company, so I knew, logically, that my load would be chemicals. What kind, I didn't know, but I would find out soon enough. The guard up front sent me around to the rear docks, where the gate was already opened up for me. A spacious dock, for an in-town shipper, for a change. I made a u-turn inside the gate (which had already closed again) and backed into the easiest dock I could get to. I was the only truck in there at that time, so I had the whole dock area to myself. I then went in to shipping, gave them my pickup number, then returned to the truck to wait for them to load me up with whatever it was I was getting. I felt the bumpety-bump bouncing of the trailer on its supension, as a forklift rolled on and off of it, with the pallets of whatever. 

After maybe twenty minutes, the green "go for it" light came on, indicating that they were done, off the trailer, and that I could go in and get the bills on the load. I did so. Signed on the dotted line, received a handful of hazmat placards, and was wished a safe trip by the office crew. Placards had a skull and crossbones on them, so this was evidently poisonous something-or-other. I studied the bills in my hand. Some kind of alcohol-based solvent, apparently. No, not hardly the kind you'd want to drink at all. I put placards on both sides of the trailer, then pulled out of the dock and up the sloping driveway far enough to close the doors and put the last placard in the holder on the left-hand side. Ten big yellow metal tanks of the stuff, roughly equivalent to 55 gallon drums in size. So, I estimated that I had close to 600 gallons of the stuff onboard my box. I closed and sealed it, placarded it, then eased up and stopped to allow the gate (automatic on exit) to open, then eased out onto the deserted street. That's when my wild ride began. 

I noticed it at every stop sign and traffic light, well before I got back to the freeway. Every time I stepped on the brake pedal, my cargo would slosh around in the tanks back there, causing my whole truck to rock back and forth, like a child's rocking horse. Under power, it didn't seem to be so bad -- I could barely feel it at all, but change my speed at all -- even by letting up on the accelerator a little -- and it was like being in a rowboat in an ocean full of ten-foot swells. "I'm gonna get seasick!" I said out loud. "And I'm on dry land -- in a truck!!!

I thought that surely once I was up to highway speed, things would smooth out, and they did seem to, when I got back on the interstate and headed out of town. Cloverleaf ramps were a little tricky, because the liquid back there would slosh toward the inside of the curve, making the truck want to oversteer in that direction, so I had to take it slowly on them. But once I was rolling on the Big Road, the undulationg motion seemed to go away. Until, that is, I had to hit the brakes in order to avoid running over a scaredy-cat driver who lost it completely whenever the wind blew a little snow across the road in his path. When I did, the rocking of my trailer was amplified by my now much higher speed. It was like riding a mechanical bull in one of those movies! 

I wanted to let off the brakes, but couldn't, of course, without running all over the top of the Nervous Nellie in front of me. The left lane cleared out at last, and I was able to put that one in my rear-view mirror. "If you're that afraid of a little blowing snow, why don't you take that thing home and park it??" I gruffly asked him, as I blew past him. But there were plenty more ahead just like him and I didn't get any relief until I got onto I-71, heading for Columbus, then to points west of there. I wasn't going due west, through Chicago, that night. I wanted to get as far south as I could, and out of that lake effect crap for good. As it turned out, I had to get almost to Columbus before I did. Big storm system. 

500 MILES, driving that 18-wheeled mechanical bull!! I think my body was still rocking back and forth in my seat when they unloaded me in Mapleton, Illinois on Friday morning. I was never in my entire trucking career happier to get rid of a load! I wanted to tell my dispatcher that I didn't care what kind of load he got me to go home with, just as long is it don't slosh!!! I didn't actually get motion sickness and I kept all my food down just fine, but it was hard to focus my eyes when I stopped, because they were still rolling up and down in my skull. 

That experience was definitely -- different. And I can do without any repeats of it. 

Saturday, February 14, 2009


I've been playing this trucking game long enough so that I can often predict things that are likely to happen with a great deal of accuracy. A good case in point was last week, when I picked up a load with two delivery stops on it, the latter of which would stick my butt in a little town way out in the woods of North Carolina, almost right on the coast. I had never been that close to the fabled Outer Banks before and at first I was curious to see what the area looked like out there, as the weather was predicted to be nice and pretty warm as well, up near 70 degrees. So, I loaded up in an Atlanta suburb and headed northeast, with the prospects of seeing some countryside that I'd never seen before. 

But then, after finally finding the obscure little burg in my road atlas, The Fear hit me. I mean, this little town was really OUT THERE in God's country. Looked to be at least 100 miles from I-95 and civilization, as truckers know it. Very likely no truckstops in a town that tiny, and probably none in that entire remote area. A dread came over me. I KNEW, somehow, at that early point, that there would be no backhaul load awaiting me when I got unloaded and sent in my "Empty" message to dispatch. No load and nowhere to park and stay awhile, until one could be found, eventually. And I am quite familiar with that "Mad Irishman," Mr. Murphy and his Law, and due to that it was safe to assume that I would sit awhile, waiting. When you're already cut and bleeding anyway, Murphy just loves to come by and toss a shakerful of salt in the wound. That is his nature. I would kill Murphy with my bare hands and a smile on my face, if I could find him, but nobody can. He hides himself very cleverly. 

However, the nature of trucking being what it is, I had to go, and so I did. I got my first stop off quickly, then headed north and then east, toward the coast. It would be quite pretty country out there in the summer months, when the trees are green, but it's bleak in winter, as you might expect. Flat land and little traffic on the roads. Well off the beaten path. Once I moved east of the last major town, it was flat and desolate. Very little traffic on the road, and I drove for miles without even passing another truck. Nope, this wasn't looking good at all; the less truck traffic there is, the less likely it is that there'll be any services and amenities designed for us. Nobody in their right mind would build a truckstop in an area where so few trucks run; they'd go bankrupt overnight. 

There may be a few tiny little places out there, but you can bet that only local drivers know about them, and they're not about to tell YOU. They keep those places secret -- the reason being that if they told visiting truckers where they are, their lots would be filled with trucks before you could say "hello." Truck parking spaces have always been in short supply, for as long as I've been driving, and it hasn't gotten one bit better. So, the local yokels keep their hidey-holes' locations to themselves, so they'll always have somewhere to park. When I think about it, I can't really blame them one bit. 

Again, I got unloaded quickly, then punched in my Empty message. Less than five minutes later, I got the message I'd predicted I would two days earlier:  No Load. I had asked the guy who unloaded me about truck parking when he signed my bills. He smiled and shook his head in the negative. Nothing he was aware of, just as I'd suspected. Once again, the Dawg Prophet was right on target with his prediction! No load and nowhere to stay. 

I definitely couldn't sit in the little side street I was on forever, so I sent a message to dispatch, telling them there was nowhere there to stay and that I was heading back west, the way I'd come, to try and find a roosting place. I hit the road and reversed course. Back through the wilderness, looking at every restaurant, to see if it had truck parking (very few do, anywhere), every lot I spotted, but they were all private property and verboten. Back through the first major town, asking truckers on the CB if they knew of any place. The ones who bothered to answer me at all didn't. Didn't see a thing there, so kept going, to the next, larger, small city on my route. But I had been through Greenville, NC enough times to know there wasn't anything there that I knew about. One driver did suggest a place I was unaware of, and I checked it out, only to find that every one of the few parking slots was occupied. There wasn't even enough room in it to play invent-a-spot, without being in someone's way. 

I moved on. Nothing in Wilson, another small city, and being so close to I-95 again, I just decided to hit the Big Road and then drove 13 miles south, to Kenly, where I knew there were at least four large truckstops. I ended up at the T/A there, which was being remodeled, but had a huge lot, still mostly empty in the early afternoon. I set my brakes a little past 3 P.M., CST on Wednesday afternoon, then headed to the restaurant, for a meal. Dispatch wasn't happy with my having driven so far to find a truckstop, but what could I do? When there ain't nothing, there ain't nothing! I told them that I wasn't able to wave a magic wand and make one appear out of nowhere. I'm not David Copperfield, by a long shot. I had looked everywhere, and there was nothing. BAD area for a truck to be stranded in, without a load. The further you get from the interstate nowadays, the harder it is to find any truck services. Since the interstate system was completed, almost all the truckstops have relocated to the Superslabs. That's where most of the traffic (and the money) is now. There are a\few mom 'n pop places, here and there, still operating out in the boonies, but they don't advertise and you don't know where they are, unless they happen to be right on your route. And most of them are slowly going out of business, unable to get enough clientele to keep operating. 

So, I sat and sat, and sat some more. A little over 48 hours, in fact before I got dispatched at last, Friday afternoon, at 4:45 P.M. I thought at times that everyone in dispatch had died. That maybe my company had gone out of business and forgotten to tell me. Then I reminded myself that they would likely want their truck back, if that were the case, so I couldn't help but know about something like that. And another Star truck was parked across the lot from me, who'd been there almost as long as I had, so I wasn't playing the waiting game alone, at least. Just the sucky economy, rearing it's ugly head once more, and biting drivers like me smack in the wallet. 

And it seems there are many, many drivers out here just like me, or even worse. Owner-operators, of course, are feeling the crunch the hardest, like they always do. Want to own your own truck and roll down the road? Wait awhile -- that's my advice. This AIN'T a very good time to go independent, unless you enjoy losing your shirt. There are more trucks than there are loads, nationwide, and that's the problem. Sharply scaled-back production, laid-off plant workers, and not a lot of demand for products has made the loads for trucks dwindle to a trickle, across the board, and has practically come to a halt in some sectors. Freight volume hit the basement floor in December, with tonnage down close to the single digits, and it hasn't come back up as yet. And it may not move upward a lot this year, say Those Who Know about these economic things. 

O/Os have told me about sitting for close to a week, trying to find a load to get them back close to home. Many have just hung it up and sold their trucks for whatever they could get out of them. For all too many, it was a choice of either losing the truck, or losing their house. Those who could get hired on have moved to company driving positions, giving up their independence in order to make their mortgage payments. And although they don't have all the expenses, driving for a company, loads and miles are still down, making it hard to keep the bills at bay. I can tell you that from my own bitter experience.  

I don't know when it's going to get better. Nobody does. We can only hang on and hope. It's bad everywhere. And now fuel prices have slowly started creeping back upward again. Nothing like it was early last year, but any upward trend there is very bad news. Add high fuel prices to the current load shortfall and I just don't know how many companies will be able to stay in business. I could easily lose my job, along with many other drivers, if things become a lot worse. Even eleven-year veterans won't be spared if it gets bad enough. Sobering thoughts indeed. 

All you can do is hope and pray that the situation will improve quickly. So, I'm still out here, picking up what loads there are and delivering them and praying that this crunch gets better in the near future. That's all I can do.