Saturday, February 14, 2009
OUT IN THE WOODS AND DEAD IN THE WATER
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.