Section 2 - On-The-Job Training 

Introduction

I am keeping a journal to document the whole process of becoming a truck driver. Instead of posting new information week by week, I will try to post the journal in three sections. I wrote the first section in late December 2002 after completing truck driving school, but before starting a real driving job. The second section follows, below. I wrote this section in April and May 2003 after I found a driving job and completed the additional company training on the road. I will try to add a third section once I have completed several months of solo driving, assuming I get that far.

Getting A Real Truck Driving Job

As I explained in the previous section of my journal, my truck driving goal is to be a company driver hauling a dry van doing 48-state solo OTR. In the previous section of my journal, I related how I completed step 1, which was to learn how to drive a tractor-trailer truck and get a commercial driver's license. But there still were many more practical details that I needed to learn and skills that I needed to hone before I could become a productive truck driver. The usual way to achieve this is to get hired by a "training" company that hires new drivers straight out of truck driving school and provides lots of additional on-the-job training.

While I was still in truck driving school, I evaluated several "training" companies. I visited their web sites, talked to their company representatives, and asked them to mail me information and an application. I also did internet searches, including online forums, to find other opinions. Based on what I learned, I applied to three trucking companies: Werner, Schneider, and Swift. It seemed to me that Werner and Schneider had relatively good reputations as "training" companies. Also, they were both big companies that should have lots of opportunities for new drivers and plenty of OTR work nationwide. I applied to Swift as a "safety", in case Werner and Schneider didn't hire me. I had seen a lot of "Swift bashing" on the internet, and it seemed that their reputation wasn't as good. I assumed that they would hire just about anybody, since they seemed to have a high driver turnover and would need to keep all their trucks occupied and busy. Based on my evaluation, I eliminated a few other "training" companies, usually because I couldn't get enough good, detailed information.

The job application forms seemed to be designed for applicants who were experienced drivers with years of experience. With no experience, my applications had scant information, so I decided to provide something extra. I typed up an informal resume with details about my non-driving jobs and an explanation for any gaps in employment. My recent work history was spotty, since I had retired from my computer job and had been cruising around on a sailboat. By providing extra information, I was trying to show that I had a good long-term work history and could completely account for all my recent time.

Here's a chronological account of the whole job-hunting process (I have omitted some minor details):

Saturday 11/30/02 - Mailed in the job applications (plus my extra information) to Werner, Schneider, and Swift.

Friday 12/13/02 - I got a call from Swift: report for orientation on January 13. Although this sounded promising, it turned out that I wasn't hired yet. I think they just wanted to "claim" me as soon as possible. There were still many more hoops to jump through before you could be officially hired.

Monday 12/16/02 - I got a curious postcard from Werner and couldn't figure out what it meant—good news or bad? I called them to see what was up, and it turned out they had misplaced my application. By calling them, I was able to move the process along so they found it again, and they said to call back next week.

Wednesday 12/18/02 - Last day of truck driving school. We met with the director, who handed out the graduation certificates and gave us phone numbers of numerous companies soliciting new drivers.

Monday 12/23/02 - I called Werner again; they turned me down. They didn't provide any reason, which I understand is typical. Also, it seemed that none of the companies initiated calls to me. I had to do all the calling, sometimes multiple times, to prod them along the application review process, even to the point of calling them the final time to find out if I was hired.

Monday 12/30/02 - I called Schneider; they turned me down, too. At this point, I was really bummed-out. I had applied to Swift only as my "safety"— the company I was sure would hire me since they hire everybody who's alive and human. I was really hoping to get hired by Werner, and if not Werner, then Schneider. Now I would have to concentrate all my efforts on getting hired by Swift, and they were a distant third choice. There were a few other companies that hire newbies, but I thought their web sites and application packages were so mediocre that I decided not to apply to them, on the basis of my unfavorable first impressions.

Monday 12/30/02 - I called Swift again, just to make sure the process was still rolling along, They said they were having trouble verifying everything in my application package. The company does a background check on all applicants, and it is quite thorough for the past three years. Unfortunately, this is when I was cruising around on my sailboat and when I had only two small jobs at a marina. So the past three years of my work history was very weak. It's also a drawback that I live on a boat and traveled around, so I don't have a conventional shoreside address. I think what they really would like is an applicant with a steady job who lives in a house, who has been that way for years. At this point in my life, I don't fit that picture very well, and it's causing me some job-hunting problems. This could very well be why the other companies turned me down. To avoid these problems, I had provided a lot of extra information with my job application, but apparently, it was not enough. Although I did document a long-term work history and a long-term shoreside residence history, this was from more than three years ago, and it counted for very little during the application review process.

Tuesday 12/31/02 - I called Swift again; they were having trouble verifying my traveling on the boat, even though I had provided numerous pages of information documenting every detail. They asked me to contact two of my references who were familiar with my boat travels and get the people to fax a letter verifying the details. I thought it was strange that Swift asked me to contact my references instead of Swift calling them directly. After all, these were the same people I listed as references on my application. But this seems to be part of a general mode of operation: having me do the legwork to provide them with lots of pieces of paper, then they evaluate the paperwork. It was also a little annoying that they seemed to discount all the extensive information I provided, as if they don't trust what the applicant says. Instead, they want other people to vouch for me, people who are complete strangers to Swift. I asked five people instead of two, since different people were familiar with different portions of my traveling.

Friday 1/3/03 - I called Swift; they have been getting a few faxes and will forward my application package for processing, which is good news.

Thursday 1/9/03 - I finally got a call FROM Swift! They confirmed my orientation appointment for Monday, January 13, and said to call tomorrow to get the final instructions and the motel reservation. But I'm still not hired—I'll have to wait for more background checking, which will be completed during orientation.

Friday 1/10/03 - I called Swift several times to see if everything was a "go" for Monday, but the responsible people were not available. I was getting a little anxious as it headed into late afternoon and I still didn't have things finalized for Monday. Finally, I was able to talk to the person in-charge, who gave me last-minute instructions and my motel reservation.

Swift Orientation In Richmond, Virginia

At this point, I was heading to the Swift terminal in Richmond, Virginia, for three-and-a-half days of new-employee orientation. Unfortunately, I was still not a new employee—I hadn't been officially hired. I was a little upset that I was investing all this time and effort, but Swift had not been able to give me a firm answer, not even a "pre-hire". Technically, I could go through the whole orientation process, and be told "no, we decided not to hire you". This was making me very anxious, since if Swift said "no", I'd have to start the whole job-hunting process over again. And I'd already seen that things were not going very smoothly for me, due to my particular circumstances. Oh well, I'll just take it one day at a time.

Sunday 1/12/03 - Orientation starts Monday morning, but Swift only provides a motel starting Monday night. I wouldn't even think of driving all the way from Baltimore to Richmond on Monday morning, so I drove down Sunday night and stayed at a Motel 6 at my own expense. I drove past the Swift terminal just to find where it was—it looked rather small and was crammed with vehicles. Last Friday, the lady had mentioned that I might have to take a driving test, but I didn't really know what to expect. I had decided to prepare like I did for the Maryland CDL test, and had brought my truck driving school textbooks with me. I skimmed through the CDL textbook and reviewed the range maneuver instructions in the yard handbook. I looked over all my pre-trip inspection flash cards to refresh my memory, in case I had to do a pre-trip inspection. I hadn't driven a truck in a few weeks, so I was worried that my meager skills had grown rusty. Also, all of the school trucks had nine-speed transmissions, and I was worried that the Swift driving test might have an unfamiliar transmission. I'm basically quite anxious, because there's a lot riding on this and I want it all to work out.

Monday 1/13/03 - First day of orientation. I was ushered into the orientation room where I met the other new drivers. Only four people showed up for orientation even though the whiteboard indicated at least a dozen were signed up. The first step was to drive over to a local doctor's office and take another DOT physical. Even though my DOT card from truck driving school hadn't expired, you have to take another physical whenever you change jobs. On my previous DOT physical, the hearing test consisted of a "forced whisper" test where the nurse whispered some words which I had to repeat—easy as pie! This time, I got an extensive hearing test that involved listening to audio tones in headphones while seated in a soundproof booth. Just like my earlier DOT physical, I was worried about my blood pressure, but I passed the physical OK and got my new DOT card.

Back at Swift, I had to fill out more forms for verifying my background. They told me that the rigorous checking was required by Swift's customers and by the insurance companies, and was not related to the 9/11 terrorist attack. They were basically worried about getting ripped-off big-time by a shady character, someone who might be good at all forms of deception (including job applications). The information they were gathering on me then had to be sent up the chain of command for approval, since my background was "non-standard" enough that they could not approve me at the recruiter level. The orientation manager didn't seem very optimistic that I would be approved. However, I did learn (to my relief) that I didn't have to take a driving test. Since I had graduated truck driving school within the last 30 days, my CDL driving test was recent enough to count as a current driving test.

Tuesday 1/14/03 - Second day of orientation. We watched a bunch of instructional videos generated by a computer system hooked up to a projection TV. Some of the videos were pretty dull, just watching "talking heads" rattle off lots of details about policies and procedures. We watched videos about driver policies, customer service expectations, on-the-job safety, cargo handling and accounting procedures, security and theft prevention, and sexual harassment (actually quite amusing, due to dopey exaggerated examples). We also watched some technical videos about various subjects, including logbook usage, coupling/uncoupling, how to install tire chains (very detailed), emergency and accident procedures, and the dangers of railroad crossings. This last video was quite interesting. On the road, you think of a truck as being so big and powerful that it can "win" any contest. But when tangling with a train, the truck loses big-time. They showed video clips of trucks getting hit by trains—the truck gets shredded and destroyed while the train just keeps rolling along like nothing happened.

Wednesday 1/15/03 - Third day of orientation. We watched more videos (there was very little "live" presentation of information): Qualcomm usage (the satellite communication system installed in each truck), how to do "xcall" for extra pay (such as to hire lumpers to unload your trailer), permits (very complicated, lots of possible permits, costly fines if you don't have everything you need), payroll and accounting policies, company benefits (complicated and not very generous). We got a free box lunch.

In theory, they were supposed to finish the background checking during orientation and give me a yes/no answer. The other applicants learned that they were hired and each was assigned an employee number, but I still didn't know if I would be hired and I didn't get an employee number. It was very annoying to have such a major decision still hanging, up in the air, and it was making me quite anxious. The latest problem is that the recruiter processing my application finally read my medical information (even though they had had it for weeks) and noticed that I had injured my back many years ago. Apparently, this has to be approved by somebody and might require a doctor's certification, creating yet another hoop to jump through and yet another reason to be turned down. This last problem was extremely frustrating. The recruiter told me I might have to contact the doctor who treated me (years ago!), and get him to send Swift a letter certifying that my past injury would not prevent me from carrying out all the duties of a truck driver. Fat chance! There's a zero percent chance that the doctor would sign such a letter, or even a current doctor after a current examination. Due to the threat of legal liability, no doctor is ever going to say that a former medical problem wouldn't cause any problems in the future. Then yet another hoop was produced for me to jump through: Despite the fact that I presented copies of my truck driving school graduation certificate and grade records, a copy of the school registration form, a copy of my canceled check for the deposit, and a copy of my credit card statement showing tuition payment, they are still not entirely convinced that I paid for it myself (since I am claiming tuition reimbursement from Swift). I might have to get a statement signed by the school director on school letterhead confirming that I paid the tuition out of my own pocket. Cripes! Is there no end to the hoop jumping? Just how far do I have to go to "prove" something? They must get a lot of creeps and cheats coming through here trying to con them if they want such extreme verification of something that I thought I had already rigorously proved. It seems like they don't trust anything that an applicant says or provides—you always have to get somebody else to vouch for you.

Thursday 1/16/03 - Fourth day of orientation. The shop manager came in and talked to us for a while about how to take care of the trucks and what to do if something goes wrong. Then the terminal manager (who used to be a driver) talked to us for a while about all kinds of miscellaneous details, and gave us lots of very practical advice. Just a few items: Don't buy food at truckstops, instead get an electric cooler and go food shopping for the truck just like you go food shopping for your house. This is much less expensive and you can eat much healthier. U-turns are illegal at Swift—there's too much risk of another vehicle running under the trailer when you are broadside to traffic. If you get lost, get off the road, stop, and figure out where you are. Avoid getting flustered and panicking—this is a cause of accidents. Try to last a year—everything is hard in the beginning but it gets easier. After a year, you can start making the system work for you (easier job, higher income, better home time, etc.). Today's orientation session lasted half a day, then we were dismissed. Whoopee, I finished orientation—but I am STILL not officially hired! They have asked me for still more paperwork, which I have to dig up at home.

Once I got home, I sent the orientation manager a 10-page fax with tax returns for 1999 and 2000, and current bank statements. I hope this is the end of it, one way or another.

Friday 1/17/03 - I called Swift to make sure they got the fax (yes). The recruiter said to call again on Monday.

Monday 1/20/03 - I called Swift again to check on my status, and I was FINALLY hired! You know you're hired when they give you your driver code (basically your employee number) and your logbook ID. I now have those two six-digit numbers in my possession, and what a relief it is! There were times when I thought it was never going to work out, and even a time or two when I was almost ready to give up, but I can finally stop worrying about the hiring process and can now start looking forward to the training process.

Starting The Training Process

During the training process, I'm supervised by a training coordinator who works at the Richmond terminal, which will be my home terminal. The training coordinator takes care of all the logistics and monitors my progress. There are two phases to the training process. First, I am assigned to a driver trainer who is an experienced driver, and drive with him (or her) for four weeks while I get more driving experience and get trained on company policies and procedures. If I make it through the four weeks, I then get paired up with another trainee and spend an additional four weeks driving as a team and handling all of the company's business on our own. If I make it through that, then I can start driving solo with my own truck. That is what I really want, so I'm committed to making the best of the training and working my way through to solo driving.

Monday 1/20/03 - The training coordinator called me and said a driver trainer would be available tomorrow at the Swift terminal in Greer, SC. If I wanted to start my training right away, I could go to Greer; Swift would pay for a bus ticket. I told the training coordinator that I wanted to wait for something closer. Frankly, if I had to go to South Carolina, I probably wouldn't take the bus. It would be a very tiring and uncomfortable trip, even though Swift would pay for it. I would probably take my car, but I really didn't want to travel that far to start training.

Tuesday 1/21/03 - The training coordinator called me again with another offer to train out of Greer. I turned this down, too.

Wednesday 1/22/03 - This time, the training coordinator had a trainer in Richmond, VA, my home terminal. In fact, it was one of the driver trainers from Greer who happened to be heading north with a load; he would stop in Richmond to pick me up. The training coordinator said to be at the Richmond terminal at 6:30 AM tomorrow. Since it would be very impractical to drive down from Baltimore in the morning, Swift paid for a motel room in Richmond for tonight. After some frantic packing, I drove down later in the day and spent the night.

Sidebar: What I Brought With Me

I'm actually pretty good at preparing for a trip, since I've been a traveler and camper for many years (although I tend to overpack and bring too much). While driving with my trainer, we might encounter any kind of weather—everything from warm weather in the deep South to bitterly cold winter weather up north, as well as rain, snow, sleet, etc. We'll be on the road for four weeks, but I assume I'll be able to do laundry when needed, so I brought two weeks worth of clothes. Here's what I brought:

Carried separately - sleeping bag (packed in its "stuff sack"), pillow and pillow case (carried in a white plastic trash bag to keep them clean while transporting them).

Carried in a multi-compartment duffel bag - two weeks of underpants, socks, and knit shirts, three pairs of pants, long johns (top and bottom), one pair of fleece socks, tee-shirt (for sleeping in warm weather), belt, light nylon windbreaker, fleece sweatshirt, three-season jacket, yellow vinyl rainsuit (top and bottom), two baseball caps, wool watch cap, wool gloves, two pairs of work gloves (a relatively clean pair and a dirty pair, wrapped in a plastic grocery bag), sunglasses, quarters for doing laundry (in a 35-mm film canister), spare AA batteries, alarm clock (with loud bell), money ($100 per week, hidden in the underwear), small camera, three rolls of film, aspirin, multivitamins, naproxen tablets (ache/pain reliever), No-Doze tablets (which I never used), a few bandaids, a few paper towels, prepackaged moistened towelettes, several empty plastic grocery bags, a couple of empty white kitchen trash bags.

Carried in a soft briefcase - logbook, logbook ruler, clipboard (for logbook), Swift Driver's Manual (company practices and procedures), Swift quick reference cards (summary of some procedures plus small maps of terminal locations), Swift "record it and roll" notepad (for writing down trip/load information like tolls, etc.), miscellaneous Swift paperwork, long-form DOT physical, passport and birth certificate (in case we had to go to Canada), a few envelopes, stamps (postcard and letter), a few manila folders (to organize things), Federal Motor Carrier rules and regulations book, hazardous materials book, emergency response book, Swift hazmat training book (a good summary of how to handle hazmat loads), Rand McNally Motor Carrier's Atlas (the paper version I received in truck driving school), full-sized spiral notebook (for trip planning and to use as a journal), small Mag-light flashlight (the kind that uses two AA batteries), Leatherman tool (a multipurpose tool like a Swiss army knife), boxcutter knife (for cutting boxes or shrink wrap), pens (only fine-tip black), pencils, eraser, small bottle of White-out (for correcting logbook errors), miniature stapler and staples, pocket calculator (to recap logbook hours and for trip planning), rectangular pop-out magnifying glass (for reading the fine print on maps).

Carried in a canvas "boat bag" - a book and a few magazines (rarely used), AC and DC adapters for cell phone, small vise-grip pliers, granola bars, bottled water (refilled from the sink afterwards), peppermint candies (very useful to perk up on long night drives), sneakers (which I never used), mesh laundry bag, winter parka (which didn't fit in the duffel bag), washcloth (in zip-lock bag), bath towel (in plastic grocery bag), small hand towel, toiletry bag (which contained: bar of soap (in plastic container), shampoo (in small plastic bottle), toothbrush (in plastic case), toothpaste, plastic cup, dental floss, toothpicks (in ziplock bag), Q-tips (in ziplock bag), hair dryer, electric razor, tweezers, nail clippers, nail file, antifungal cream, hand lotion, roll-on deodorant, small pack of tissues).

I brought a second pair of shoes, a sturdy pair of leather work shoes, which I wore. I also carried with me: small pocket-sized spiral notepad (absolutely essential for jotting down all kinds of info), fine-tip black pen, cell phone, wallet (with CDL, DOT card, social security card, phone card (for payphones)), change, pocket comb, truck keys, wristwatch. In my wallet I also had a piece of paper with important phone numbers, addresses, account numbers, etc.

Training With My First Driver Trainer

I arrived at the Richmond Swift terminal early in the morning and checked-in with the training coordinator, who told me my trainer's name. After retrieving my pile of stuff from the car, I hung out in the small and rather dilapidated driver's lounge. Every time somebody came into the room, I would ask, "are you James Stewart?", since the training coordinator didn't know where he was or what he looked like. Finally, I met up with Jimmy, as he preferred to be called, and we carried my stuff out to his truck (a Freightliner Columbia). Jimmy had driven up from Greer, SC and had spent the night in his truck at the Richmond terminal. After we tossed my stuff into his truck, he drove over to the fuel pumps to fill-up so we could get rolling.

Jimmy has many years of truck driving experience, including more than 10 years with Swift. Along the way, he has trained many a newbie. Jimmy works in the autohaul division, but his truck looks like a regular tractor-trailer with a 53' dry van. The van-type trailer provides much more protection and security than an open-frame car carrier, but it only has room for six cars (three on the bottom, three on a movable rack halfway up). Jimmy picks up new cars at the port facilities where they were imported, and delivers them to car dealers anywhere in the country. He had recently picked up a load of cars at the port facilities in Brunswick, GA, and we would be delivering them for the next few days.

The first day, we drove up I-95 to New Jersey, where we delivered cars in Sayreville and Redbank. Jimmy let me drive from Jessup, MD to the first stop in Sayreville, NJ, and I did pretty well. His truck has a ten-speed transmission, which I hadn't used before (the truck driving school had nine-speeds). Although I got used to it fairly quickly, it still seems to me that a ten-speed has "one gear too many" (sixth gear), and I prefer the very simple shift pattern of nine-speeds.

At our first stop, Jimmy showed me the procedure for unloading cars at a dealership. You can usually pull into the dealer's lot, but sometimes the lot is so crowded, you have to unload in the street. Once you open the trailer doors, you remove four long aluminum ramp sections from racks on the backs of the doors. You assemble the ramps in the street, two sections per side, and hook them to the back of the trailer. This is how you get the cars out of the trailer and down to street level.

The trailer carries three cars parked end-to-end on the floor of the trailer. The trailer carries another three cars on a movable steel rack halfway up inside the trailer. Each car is secured to the floor (or to the steel rack) with heavy webbing straps that go around a tire and clip to the floor (or rack). A ratchet mechanism allows you to take up or release tension on the webbing straps. Once the bottom cars are unstrapped and driven out of the trailer, you go inside the trailer and release locking pins, then use electrical controls to lower the steel rack to floor level. Before driving the upper cars off the rack, you need to reposition the ramps slightly.

Due to width and especially height limitations inside the trailer, you can't carry large vehicles like SUV's (we usually carried smallish cars like Audi, Saab, or Volkswagen). Jimmy always figured the weight as 4,000 lbs x 6 cars = 24,000 lbs. Since this is a relatively light load, we never had to scale-out or slide the tandems, and we never worried about roadside weigh stations. As a car carrier, we never unloaded at loading docks, so I got very little backing practice. Overall, the car carrying process was fairly easy—I remember being concerned in truck driving school about hand-unloading a 53' trailer full of boxes. We only carried six items in the trailer, and each item was self-propelled! Such a deal!

When we finished with our two stops for the day, we spent the night parked along the roadside in an industrial area of Port Newark, NJ, positioned to head north for two more stops tomorrow. There was a lot of activity in the area—planes were flying overhead on the way to Newark Airport, a big car-carrying ship docked nearby, and several times during the night, a car-carrying train rumbled past us—the tracks went right down the middle of the street. A few other Swift car-carrying trucks parked in the area, and Jimmy met with some of the other drivers.

That night was the first time I slept in a truck. The sleeper area was surprisingly roomy, and although I had the upper bunk, it was spacious and comfortable. Although it was bitterly cold outside (temps in the low teens), the interior was toasty warm due to the truck's Opti-Idle feature. To use Opti-Idle, you start the truck, turn the heater on full, then turn on the Opti-Idle switch. You then set the desired temperature by pushing some buttons on a small control panel next to the sleeper berth. The truck's engine keeps running until the heater warms the interior to the desired temperature. Then the engine automatically shuts off, and the interior starts to cool off. Once the temperature drops a few degrees, the engine automatically starts up, and the heater warms up the interior again. Although the Opti-Idle feature worked well, it could be a little disconcerting when the engine started all by itself. I remember one night having a nightmare that the truck was rolling away with no driver, and jumping up out of bed in a panic.

The next day, we unloaded the rest of the cars in Springfield and Ramsey, then went back to Port Newark to await our next load assignment. Jimmy guessed (correctly) that we would be picking up cars at Port Newark, which has a major facility for importing cars. While we were waiting, another Swift autohaul driver nicknamed "Chief" came over for a pow-wow. Chief is a native American from northern Canada, far enough north that they go whale hunting and could be called Eskimos. He looked the part, with Indian features and long, dark hair. He and Jimmy smoked up a storm and gossiped until our load assignment came in. We would be picking up six Volvos at Port Newark, and delivering them to Bristol, VA, Spartanburg, SC, and two locations in Charleston, SC. After making the deliveries, Jimmy would get some home time in Summerville, SC, which is not far from Charleston.

The procedure to load cars into the trailer was quite a bit more complicated than unloading. You had to slide the tandems all the way forward, dump the trailer's air suspension, lower the landing gear, and uncouple the trailer. Then you had to crank the landing gear down even more, which raised the front of the trailer and lowered the rear of the trailer. You kept cranking until the rear bumper of the trailer was resting on the ground (the bumper on an autohaul trailer comes down lower than a regular trailer). The goal was to make the trailer rock-solid and to decrease the angle between the ramps and the ground.

Based on the load assignment, you had to figure out the correct order to load the cars—the car to be delivered last had to be loaded first, at the front of the movable steel rack. Now you had to find the correct car, parked somewhere in a vast lot of similar cars. Luckily, the lot had a grid system and the load paperwork told you where the cars were parked. Other companies had shuttle vans, but we had to walk to the cars. Jimmy let me help drive the cars to our truck, but he always drove them up the ramps. (In theory, I was only learning how to drive a tractor-trailer truck, and wasn't supposed to learn autohaul procedures, but I liked to help when possible.) After loading three cars on the steel rack, you would use electrical controls to raise the rack, then go into the trailer to latch the locking pins. After repositioning the ramps, you would load three more cars into the trailer, then stow the ramps, close the doors, couple the trailer, etc.

We left the port around dusk, and I drove us over to the Swift terminal in Jonestown, PA (on I-81 north of Harrisburg) where we got fuel and each took a shower. Most Swift terminals have showers, but as it would turn out, some were too scummy to use, and at other terminals, the showers were too busy and we couldn't wait. I drove for several hours that night, rolling along through the dark Virginia countryside down I-81. At one point, we noticed a headlight had burned out, so we stopped at a rest area and Jimmy fixed it (the Columbia uses easy-to-change "peanut" halogen bulbs). In the wee hours, we stopped at a Pilot truckstop in Greenville, VA to change drivers. After 427 miles, I went to the sleeper and Jimmy drove on to Bristol.

Now I discovered a problem that was to bother me all through training. I am a fairly light sleeper, and I found it nearly impossible to get good restful sleep while the truck was moving. In fact, many times, I wouldn't be able to fall asleep at all. The constant motion and noise were such distractions that I just couldn't drop off to sleep. As a result, I went through training feeling tired most of the time, although it didn't cause me any serious problems. I guess this shouldn't have surprised me, since I have never been able to fall asleep on car, bus, or airplane trips. I really looked forward to the times when our schedule would allow us to shut the truck down for the night, or even just a few hours, so we both could get some sleep.

Later in the morning, we pulled in to Bristol, VA, deep in southwestern Virginia just across the border from Bristol, TN. We delivered one car, then Jimmy drove on to Spartanburg, SC, taking a shortcut through the mountains. We traveled on local roads through snow-covered mountain scenery, and at one point encountered a descending 9% grade (very educational for me, just watching). We passed through rural towns with interesting names, like Flag Pond, Mars Hill, and Forks of Ivy. Many towns had hillbilly shacks and homey local restaurants. To entertain us while he was driving, Jimmy did his animal impressions: cow, dove, monkey, turkey, etc., all very good imitations. Later we listened to "Click and Clack" on the local public radio station. Jimmy also made lots of cell-phone calls, since on the weekend, all his calls were free. He always used a hands-free headset and phoned only when the driving workload was light. When we got to Spartanburg, SC, we followed signs for the airport, since we were delivering three cars to the Hertz rental-car agency. The lot manager wasn't too happy to see us. It was the weekend, and not many people rent cars on the weekend. The lot was already jam-packed full, and he had to find room for three more cars.

Jimmy drove us over to the Swift terminal in Greer, SC, which is his home terminal. The terminal was pretty nice, but we had trouble finding a place to park. After a brief stop, I drove to Summerville, SC, via I-26, arriving around dusk. This is where Jimmy lives, and he is owed some hometime. We dropped the trailer at a local shopping mall (keeping it well out of the way) and Jimmy bobtailed home. On the way, he dropped me off at a Sleep Inn where I stayed for two nights (paid-for by Swift). The motel was in a very convenient location, with stores and restaurants all around, so I didn't mind not having "wheels". Sunday was "Superbowl Sunday", but I can't stand TV sports and completely ignored it.

On Monday, Jimmy picked me up bright and early and we drove down to Charleston, delivering cars at the airport Hertz and at a local Volvo dealer. Jimmy drove back to Summerville to take care of some banking business that couldn't be handled on the weekend. Unfortunately, on the way, he had a small accident. As it would turn out, there is no such thing as a "small" accident—any accident involving a commercial vehicle is a major headache. We were empty, and Jimmy was driving along a local road. Traffic ahead suddenly stopped due to road construction activity. Jimmy braked, then braked hard, then braked really hard, locking up the wheels. The truck just didn't stop in time. We needed about five more feet, but the space just wasn't available. At slow speed, we bumped into a pickup truck ahead of us. The pickup moved forward and bumped the car in front of him. No one was injured, and all the vehicles were driveable (we couldn't even see any damage to our truck). But we all had to pull over, and the police came by, and everybody had to exchange information. Jimmy notified Swift by sending an "accident" macro on the Qualcomm satellite terminal, then he used the truck's "accident kit" to document the event. The kit contained a simple camera to take pictures of everything, and a pamphlet to guide the driver through all the procedures, with blank spaces for all the information (including a drawing of the accident scene). The whole time, I stayed in the truck and kept my mouth shut, which I thought would be the best thing to do. As expected, Jimmy received a Qualcomm message ordering him back to the Greer terminal for the mandatory post-accident drug and alcohol test. He also got a $200 ticket from the police.

From this point forward, my training session with Jimmy was in limbo. According to Swift policy, when a driver trainer has a rear-end collision—no matter how minor—the driver trainer loses his trainer status for a year. This would be a major loss for Jimmy, since he gets paid 35 cents a mile for all the miles that he and his trainees drive (the trainee gets a flat-rate salary of $350 a week). We figured out how many miles his trainees drive in a year, and he could lose up to $15,000, which is a big chunk of change. We both thought that the truck had been unusually difficult to stop. To be sure, it was empty, and empty rigs have longer stopping distances. But as slowly as we were going (35 mph or so), it shouldn't have taken that long. Later on, when the truck went into the shop, the mechanics found two air brake chambers on the trailer that were completely broken—one was sheared off and just hanging by its linkage and air hose. This certainly could have contributed to the excessively long stopping distance. Jimmy tried very hard to hang on to his training status, appealing to managers up the chain of command. Eventually, however, he lost his training status and had to go back to solo driving.

But due to the lengthy appeal process, that decision was still days away, and we continued driving together for the time being. Now we started on a great adventure: picking up cars in Brunswick, GA, practically within sight of the Atlantic Ocean, and delivering the cars all the way over in California, practically within sight of the Pacific Ocean. I found it hard to believe that the company could make money on an odyssey like that—paying two drivers to take a tractor-trailer truck thousands of miles across the country, just to deliver six cars. But they must make money, since Jimmy has done trips like this before. I won't continue the day-by-day details, but will just tell you about the high points (literally and figuratively).

[Jimmy and his truck in Arizona]  
My first driver trainer Jimmy and his truck at a rest area in Arizona.  

We crossed the entire continent, state by state. Here are some of the places we stopped, from my logbook: Brunswick, Georgia; Lithia Springs, Georgia; Oxford, Mississippi; Mulberry, Arkansas; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; McLean, Texas; Moriarty, New Mexico; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Winslow, Arizona ("...there's a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin' down to take a look at me..."); Essex, California; Buttonwillow, California; Lathrop, California. All that in three days. The dreary wet night slogging our way across Mississippi, passing through Tupelo—the birthplace of Elvis Presley. The wild ride across the Mississippi River on a high steel bridge, in the pre-dawn darkness during a gusty downpour—sheets of rain flying through the headlights, with inky blackness to each side. The long wait at the Oklahoma City terminal while the truck was being fixed—how many times can you play the "Push-Push" game on my cell phone before you go bonkers with boredom. The flat plains of the Texas panhandle with an uninterrupted hemisphere of sky—just like being on a nearly calm ocean frozen in time. The spectacular "Wild West" scenery of western New Mexico—as wild and rugged for us as for the early settlers. The clean, crisp air in the high desert of Arizona—air that's a deep, ultramarine blue. Driving across the Mojave Desert in the wee hours of the morning—stars blazing in the night sky. Descending Tehachapi Pass at the tail-end of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in ninth gear with the jake brake on—I didn't even have to step on the brake (jakes are great!). The scary ride up I-5 in California—pea-soup fog at 60 mph (Jimmy was driving).

By this time, I was really enjoying the trip, and considered it to be a great "introduction to trucking" as well as a fascinating adventure. Jimmy and I got along well and enjoyed each other's company. I was learning a lot and getting better all the time. I was even getting better at sleeping while the truck was moving. (Eventually, you get tired enough to sleep through anything.) We delivered the cars in suburban Walnut Creek, CA, just east of San Francisco Bay, and waited for our next dispatch: pick up cars in Southern California, then head back east to Michigan, delivering cars along the way.

We headed south and picked up cars in Oxnard (north of L.A.) and in National City (south of San Diego). Along the way, we drove on a stretch of highway that paralleled the coast, within sight of the Pacific Ocean (which was truly "Pacific"—peaceful—that day). We saw palm trees, an aircraft carrier, and lots and lots of highways and cars. After loading up, we headed east on I-8, and at one point, passed within a few miles of Baja California, Mexico. On our way through Southern California, we heard, to our shock, that the Space Shuttle had crashed. It seemed hard to believe that such a terrible tragedy could occur, and we continued to follow the story as we worked our way east.

[Flat landscape out west]   [Cactii in the desert out west]
An example of the very flat landscape out west.   Some of the Wild West scenery we encountered in the desert, with rugged hills and cacti.

We entered Arizona, stopping for the night at the Swift terminal in Phoenix, which is at the company headquarters. I noticed that the Phoenix terminal was very fancy, with beautiful facilities including a 24-hour restaurant. I guess they figured that nothing was too good for the top brass. They ought to show as much concern for the other terminals, too. The next day, we headed north to I-40, passing through Flagstaff. I was again dazzled by the beauty of the desert southwest, although you have to wonder how long can they keep building cities and towns before they finally run out of drinking water. On the stretch from Winslow, AZ to Albuquerque, NM, it was very windy, and numerous tumbleweeds were bouncing and rolling across the highway. I could feel the truck shaking in the gusts, and could actually see the trailer leaning over as well as weathervaning. (When the trailer weathervanes, it doesn't travel in a straight line behind the tractor. Instead, the rear of the trailer gets blown several inches out of line, due to the force of the wind.)

After delivering a car in Albuquerque, we headed north on I-25 into Colorado. Along the way, we passed through Cuba, Trinidad, and Las Vegas, although these were small local towns rather than their more famous counterparts. I noticed something that I thought was rather amusing—the futility of high speed limits. Out west, the speed limits were frequently 75 mph, but they might as well have been 175 mph—our Swift truck was governed at 60 mph. You see a sign, "Reduce Speed Ahead", and you prepare to slow down. But the speed limit only drops from 75 to 65, so you can still keep it floored, the "Swift" truck moseying along at a measly 60. We delivered a car in Colorado Springs, CO, then stopped at the Swift terminal in Denver for some chores. The Denver terminal was a little weird. When I walked into the driver's lounge and looked around, I saw a strange collection of misfits hanging out in the lounge. Each table had exactly one person, each of whom was morose-looking and weird in his own way. Everybody was silently staring at the TV set, which was spewing out some banal non-entertainment. I couldn't help thinking to myself, is this going to happen to me, too? Will I turn into a morose weirdo?

We stopped at Denver, among other reasons, to check on the weather and to procure a set of chains for the truck. We had to cross the Rocky Mountains, the backbone of the continent, to deliver a car at Glenwood Springs, CO. And being early February, you could not take the weather for granted. The western states have telephone numbers that you can call for up-to-the-minute information about the weather and road conditions. Conditions sounded OK for today, so we headed west on I-70 and started climbing, and climbing, and climbing. Jimmy was driving—the deal was, he would drive one way to show me what it was like, then I would drive back the next day. We kept going up, and up, and up, through beautiful mountain scenery, and finally crossed Vail Pass, which was at an elevation of 10,662 feet. I couldn't believe how high we were—driving a tractor-trailer truck, more than two vertical miles above sea level, crossing the rugged and aptly named Rocky Mountains.

[Driving over the Rockies in a snowstorm]  
Driving back over the Rockies in a snowstorm. Jimmy was driving, I was praying.  

It was a long grind, up and down, and by the time we got to Glenwood Springs, it was dark. We couldn't find any truck stops, so Jimmy wound up parking behind a K-Mart at a shopping mall. It was bitterly cold outside, and it snowed during the night. The next morning, we delivered the car, then faced the prospects of recrossing the Rockies during a snowstorm. We each listened to the telephone recording for road conditions, and conditions were only so-so. The road was reported to be snow and slush covered, and in some places, icy. Chains were required, but only if your truck had a single drive axle. Since we had dual drive axles, we wouldn't have to install our chains (but we were still legally required to carry them with us). Jimmy wanted to proceed, and we both decided that he should drive since conditions were marginal. To tell the truth, I was pretty nervous, and most of the way across, I had white knuckles from hanging on to the armrest. Although the road was snowy and icy, Jimmy did a great job, and we never once lost traction, not even for an instant. I was actually very impressed by how well the truck handled the steep snowy grades—it just kept plowing ahead, slow and steady. We saw some trucks that were using chains, including a Werner truck that threw one of its chains (according to Jimmy, because it was way too loose). The scenery was truly spectacular, but I was too nervous to appreciate it. We finally made it across, and it wasn't even snowing on the other side. After passing through Denver, we drove up to Fort Collins, delivered another car, then resumed our eastward trek.

In the last light of the day, I drove through Wyoming and into Nebraska. We stopped at a very nice Bosselman's truckstop in Big Springs, Nebraska, and had a sit-down dinner of REAL FOOD! I drove through more of Nebraska, then in the wee hours of the morning, we changed drivers and Jimmy drove through the rest of Nebraska, Iowa, and into Illinois. Our immediate destination was the Swift terminal in Gary, Indiana, where we would stop for fuel. After a brief stop, we pushed on into Michigan, and spent the night at the Swift terminal in New Boston, MI. The terminal building was a dreary and bland disappointment. Inside, it was sterile and bare, with walls painted institutional gray—all the charm of an inner-city bus terminal. The next morning, we delivered the last car in Troy, MI, and came back to the New Boston terminal for our next load assignment. We would pick up five small, sporty Cadillacs from a storage lot at the terminal, and deliver them to Port Newark, NJ and Baltimore, MD. The Cadillacs were U.S.-made cars that were being exported.

We knew by now that Jimmy had lost his driver trainer status, so we were just going through the motions as we headed east. I don't remember too much of this part of the trip, except for some snowy weather that Jimmy drove through on I-80 in Pennsylvania. We delivered some cars at Port Newark, then I drove down to Baltimore where we delivered the rest. I drove us down I-95 to the Richmond terminal, where Jimmy and I shook hands and reluctantly parted company.

Despite the disrupted training schedule, I thought the time I spent with Jimmy was a terrific introduction to truck driving. In a little over two weeks, we had traveled through 26 states (VA, MD, DE, NJ, PA, WV, NC, SC, GA, AL, MS, TN, AR, OK, TX, NM, AZ, CA, CO, WY, NE, IA, IL, IN, MI, OH). We had traveled literally from coast to coast, had been within a few miles of Mexico, and had been further north than parts of Canada (when we were in Troy, MI, we were further north than parts of Ontario). We had traveled through such a variety of terrain—from the desert flats of Mojave to the craggy peaks of the Rockies, from the lush palm groves of Southern California to the bleak snow-drifted hills of Wyoming, from the bitterly cold mountain tops more than two miles high in Colorado, to the humid blackwater swamps of the Georgia low country. We had driven through all kinds of weather, on all kinds of roads, and through all kinds of scenery. It was a great adventure! But alas, the adventure was now "on hold" while I waited to be assigned to another driver trainer.

Waiting For My Second Driver Trainer

Once I drove home to Baltimore, I found my first week's paycheck waiting for me. (Although I had signed up for direct deposit, it takes a few weeks for it to get started.) My fabulous check: $200.00 gross, $155.68 net. Whoopee! I can hardly wait to go on a spending spree—let's see, I think I can buy a newspaper and a cup of coffee. The check was correct, of course. During the first part of training (with a driver trainer), you get $50 for every day you are assigned to the truck. Since I started mid-week, my first check didn't cover a full week, which would have been $350.00 gross—still not something to write home about.

After a couple of days, my training coordinator in Richmond gave me the name of my next driver trainer: Carol Barnes, a man who drives out of the Richmond terminal and handles mostly northeast regional freight. After speaking with Carol, I learned that he frequently travels the I-95 corridor, and he thought he would be able to pick me up in Baltimore as he passed through (I live less than a mile from I-95). I gave him directions, and we made plans for him to swing right by my residence during the evening. Unfortunately, he had tire problems with the trailer and was delayed until the next morning. But finally, the big white Swift truck came rumbling down the road—I tossed my stuff up into the cab and hopped in. One good thing about Baltimore is that it is so heavily industrialized that trucks can go just about anywhere without being out-of-place.

Training With My Second Driver Trainer

Driving with Carol, I got to know the I-95 corridor really, really well. It seemed that the truck kept ping-ponging back and forth, from Virginia, to New Jersey, to Virginia, to New Jersey, etc. Now and then, we would get an exciting diversion and go all the way up to Connecticut, still on I-95. I'm exaggerating, of course, but you get the idea.

We also visited, on several occasions, the all-time worst terminal in the universe—the Swift terminal in South Plainfield, NJ. It had a muddy, cramped parking lot littered with huge, water-filled craters. There was a small, dingy, run-down terminal building with filthy restrooms (so dirty I wouldn't even think about sitting down; they didn't have any toilet paper anyway). Trailers were dropped willy-nilly, and trucks struggled to snake their way through with barely enough room to maneuver. You didn't even have enough room to turn around—if you didn't find a parking space the first time through, you had to exit the terminal and go back in again. The staff was so unresponsive it would take several minutes for them to open the gate for you to exit or re-enter. I don't know why the company tolerated such a disgracefully poor facility!

We spent a lot of time handling Costco loads. We would pick up a trailer at the Costco warehouse just off exit 8A on the New Jersey Turnpike, then deliver the load to a Costco store anywhere in the region. The Costco warehouse was first-class—easy access, lots of room to maneuver, fully-paved lot, and they even had a scale on-site so you could check your axle weights. When we did a pickup, it was always a drop-and-hook. The delivery was usually a live unload in the wee hours of the morning, which made for light traffic—always a plus when you're navigating unfamiliar territory looking for road signs in the dark.

We also handled Sears loads and Wal-Mart loads. For Sears, we would pick up a trailer at a warehouse and deliver to a store, with a live unload during store hours. For Wal-Mart, we would shuttle trailers between warehouses, doing drop-and-hooks at both ends (Wal-Mart has its own fleet to deliver to their stores). Since we were handling freight instead of cars, we frequently had to back the rig up to loading docks. Carol was very good about giving me lots of backing practice, which I really needed—I only backed up four times with Jimmy. Even if Carol was driving, when we came to a situation that required backing, we would switch drivers and I would do the backing. This was very, very, helpful and I learned a lot by handling all kinds of backing situations, with an experienced driver giving me tips.

After our first trip to Connecticut, I got to drive back to New Jersey on I-95. This took us straight through New York City, traveling on the Cross-Bronx Expressway and going across the George Washington Bridge. The Cross-Bronx is notorious for huge traffic jams at any time of the day or night, and it lived up to its reputation. The highway, in places, was incredibly bumpy, with giant cracks and potholes, especially leading up to the bridge. Even at our slow speed due to the traffic, it was still a jarring ride. Sometimes I wondered how the truck managed to stay together, it took such a pounding. I heard a driver talking on the CB, saying that you would be crazy to take a flatbed load on the Cross-Bronx—the load would be jarred loose and thrown on to the roadway.

The way Carol did his runs, he managed to get home every weekend (which for him was Richmond). It wasn't always easy, and he usually had to haggle and finagle with his driver manager on Friday night, or even in the wee hours of Saturday morning, to get a load going home. Every weekend, he always managed to drop me off in Baltimore as we drove to Richmond, then pick me up on Monday. This was very convenient for me, and I really appreciated it.

Being winter, we occasionally had to contend with snow. We usually traveled on well-maintained superhighways, where the snow was a minor annoyance. It could be a little more troublesome on local roads, but we never had any serious difficulty. In mid-February, the mid-Atlantic region got walloped by a huge snowstorm—we got two feet of snow in Baltimore. This happened just after a weekend, and we were both still at home. I'm just as glad we weren't on the road. I got two extra "snow days" off, and it would have been very trying being stuck in the truck on the roadside for all that time.

Soon after the snowstorm, we had to deliver a load to Maspeth, Queens, deep in the heart of New York City. We wound up taking the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge from Staten Island to Brooklyn, then taking the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway towards Queens. To our dismay, we saw a big sign saying "All Trucks Over 12' Clearance, Exit Now", and we exited on to the local streets of Brooklyn. It was quite a trial, working our way through the congested local roads with a 53' trailer in tow (Carol was driving). We learned via the CB that the sign was bogus—you could stay on the expressway all the way to Queens, but you had to stay in a particular lane to avoid a low-clearance situation. We eventually worked our way over to another expressway, but as we headed toward our destination, we discovered that our directions were wrong—the directions said Exit 22 but we actually needed Exit 18. On top of that, as we were rounding a corner at highway speed, all of a sudden we saw a broken-down car in front of us. Thanks to Carol's extremely fast reflexes, we didn't have an accident, but it was a heart-stopping moment. When we finally got to the customer, we saw it would be very difficult to back up to the dock, due to the already cramped location being further restricted by big piles of snow. To tell the truth, I was glad that Carol backed up this time. I might have been able to do it, but it probably would have taken me an hour, and I would have blocked the road for most of that time.

After two weeks of driving with Carol, I had accumulated enough training time to graduate from the first phase of training. On the way back to Richmond, Carol dropped me off in Baltimore for the last time. Although driving with Carol was very educational and I learned a lot, it wasn't as much fun as driving with Jimmy. With Jimmy, I had a coast-to-coast adventure, but with Carol, it was just a job—driving the New Jersey Turnpike just can not be considered an adventure. As a plus, I had added another four states to my total (NY, CT, MA, NH), so I now had traveled in 30 states during my training.

For the next phase of training, I would be paired-up with another trainee and we would drive as a team for four weeks. I didn't have to wait very long to start. The story continues after the following sidebar.

Sidebar: The Endless Work-A-Day Cycle

After a few weeks, I began to get used to the repetitive cycle that we go through as company drivers for Swift. Thanks to the Qualcomm satellite terminal in the truck, a driver can quickly and easily interact with the Swift dispatching system, so both the driver and the dispatcher know the truck's status at all times. For each load assignment the driver handles, the driver goes through a specific sequence of steps to interact with the dispatching system. Here's how it works:

Let's assume that initially, you're empty and ready to be dispatched. Assume that the dispatching system knows this (we'll see how, later). The first thing that happens is that you receive a "pre-plan" message on the Qualcomm terminal in your truck. The terminal beeps to let you know a message has been received. The pre-plan message contains an overview of a potential load assignment. It includes the date, time, and location for the pickup and delivery, as well as the loaded and empty mileage figures (so you know how much you'll be paid).

At this point, you need to consult with your atlas and your logbook. You use the atlas to work out a rough plan for the trip, based on how many miles and a reasonable route. Then you look in your logbook to see how many driving and on-duty hours you have available over the next few days. If you have enough time to legally make the trip, you can accept the pre-plan. If you don't have enough time, or if there are other circumstances that would make the trip doubtful (like bad weather or truck problems), you should decline the pre-plan. Once you've decided, you send a message to the dispatching system either accepting or declining the pre-plan.

Assuming you accepted the pre-plan, you now receive a load assignment message and a routing message. The load assignment message contains all the details you need to know, such as the bill-of-lading number, the trailer number (for a preloaded trailer), the weight and piece-count, etc. The routing message contains a sequence of highway designations that will take you from your present location to the pickup location and finally to the delivery location. In addition, if the dispatcher thinks you'll need fuel, the routing message will indicate a fuel stop somewhere along the way (usually at a Swift terminal). The routing message is generated by a computer, and frequently contains inefficient or inappropriate routes (like highways that aren't truck routes, or roads that closely parallel a more efficient superhighway). You have to carefully review the computer-generated route, and make as many changes as necessary to produce an efficient and appropriate route.

If you haven't been to the pickup or delivery locations before, you now send a message requesting detailed directions to the exact street address (the routing message only routes you from city to city). Once you receive the detailed directions, you write them down in your notebook—they are VERY important.

Now you're on your own—you accepted an assignment, and the dispatching system gave you all the information you need. Now you have to do it. You first drive to the pickup location, paying attention to all the details: the pickup appointment date and time, how many driving and on-duty hours you have available, routing information, street address directions, traffic, weather, truckstop locations, etc. Once you get to the pickup location, you send a message telling the dispatching system that you arrived at the shipper. You meet with the shipper's personnel and do your drop-and-hook or live load. Once you're loaded, the shipper gives you the paperwork for the load (the bill of lading). You now send a message telling the dispatching system that you're loaded, including a few details from the bill of lading (like an accurate weight and piece count, seal number, etc.).

Now you drive to the delivery location, paying attention to all the details, as before. When you get to the delivery location, you send a message telling the dispatching system that you're at the final destination. You meet with the customer's personnel and do your drop-and-hook or live unload. Once you're empty, the customer gives you a signed copy of the bill-of-lading, proving you delivered the load and it was accepted by the customer. You now send a message telling the dispatching system that you're empty. Later on, you fill out some paperwork and submit it to Swift so you get paid for the trip.

This starts the cycle all over again. The dispatching system knows that you're empty and ready to be dispatched. Now you wait to receive another pre-plan message. (I have omitted quite a few minor details, but these are the main steps.)

There is one other important detail: your PTA, or Projected Time of Availability. Obviously, you can't work 24-hours a day, non-stop. As a truck driver, you can drive up to ten hours before you must take an eight-hour break. Every day, you need to review these parameters and make an estimate of when you'll be available for a new assignment, once you've finished with the current assignment. You also make an estimate of how many driving hours you'll have at that time. Then you send a message providing this information to the dispatching system. For example, let's say you receive a load assignment with a delivery appointment of 09:00 on 5/21/03. After you do your trip planning, you estimate that when you arrive at the delivery location (hopefully, on-time), you will have been driving for three hours since taking an eight-hour break. Assuming it's a drop-and-hook, you can allow an hour to do the drop-and-hook and related paperwork, so your PTA would be 10:00 on 5/21/03. At this time, you would have seven driving hours available. The dispatching system uses this information to figure out an appropriate pre-plan for your next assignment, based on when you'll be available and how many driving hours you'll have. As another example, let's say you estimate that when you arrive at the delivery location, you will have been driving for nine hours. You can allow an hour to do the drop-and-hook, but then it would be wise to use your last driving hour to find a truckstop where you can take your eight-hour break. Therefore, you should set your PTA to 19:00 (that is, 7 pm) on 5/21/03. I computed the PTA like this: 09:00 delivery time + one hour drop-and-hook + one hour to get to the truckstop + eight hour break (minimum) = 19:00. At this time, you'll have 10 driving hours available. Obviously, it will make a big difference to the dispatching system whether you're available at 10 am or 7 pm—that's why figuring out an accurate PTA is important.

Driving With My First Trainee Co-Driver

After finishing up with Carol, my training coordinator in Richmond told me that there would be a significant delay before I could continue with the next phase of training. The Richmond terminal had plenty of trainees available as co-drivers; the problem was, there weren't any trucks available. For every pair of trainees, you need a truck, and there were no trucks. However, if I was willing to travel to the Swift terminal in Eden, North Carolina, there was another truck and trainee available immediately. I felt like I was on a roll and wanted to continue with my training, so I agreed to train out of the Eden terminal for the next phase. The training coordinator said to report to Eden the very next day after Carol dropped me off in Baltimore.

I came to regret my decision to train out of Eden. It turned out to be a six to seven hour drive each way, which burned up $20 of gas each way (not reimbursed by Swift). Also, the Eden terminal was in a weird location for a trucking terminal—in a backwater part of the state not near any interstate highway. On top of that, on the day I was due to travel, a major winter ice storm was in the forecast. But I forged ahead, and managed to arrive before the ice storm got too bad. I stayed in a motel overnight (not reimbursed), and reported for duty the next morning.

There were a few chores awaiting me. First, take a simple written test covering basic company practices and procedures, then take a driving test. The driving test was a breeze—drive a rig a few miles without hitting anything or getting a ticket, and voilà—I passed. I met Mike, my co-driver, who was from nearby Yadkinville, NC. Mike had already driven with another trainee co-driver, but they had to split up due to personality conflicts. Mike was already assigned to a truck as the "first-seat driver", which meant that he would keep the truck when he went solo (he was also responsible for paying the tolls and doing the paperwork). I was assigned as the "second-seat" driver; after going solo, I would have to find another truck at the Richmond terminal.

[Mike's truck]  
Mike's truck, when we were somewhere out west. The tractor was an International Eagle with a suspension so stiff that when we hit big bumps, everything in the cab would shake and rattle, and loose things would fly about.  

Mike told me the story of his present truck, which was interesting. It seemed another Swift driver suddenly quit without returning his truck. The training coordinator at Eden told Mike to go retrieve the truck, and gave him a key for it. Mike had to be like a "repo man" and sneak on to the other man's property, try the key in the door lock (it worked), then start up the truck and drive off before any trouble arose (it didn't). Once he got the truck to his house, he had to spend hours and hours cleaning it—trash was piled knee-deep on the floor, and the entire interior was covered with grime. After doing all that work, it was only fair to assign the truck to Mike.

After meeting with the Eden training coordinator and getting entered into the system, we received our first dispatch, and it was a beaut! Proceed to Lexington, NC to pick up a load of synthetic fabric, then drive all the way out to Ogden, Utah and deliver the load to a Kimberly-Clark plant (where Huggies diapers are manufactured). We fueled-up at Eden and headed off into our adventure.

I don't remember all the details of the trip, but a few things stand out in my mind. I remember passing through St. Louis, Missouri, and seeing the majestic Gateway Arch in a park next to the Mississippi River. The arch is a symbol of St. Louis' long history as a gateway from the east to the west. What held true for the early settlers is still true today—St. Louis is still a gateway to the west, and was for us.

I remember driving on I-80 through Wyoming on a very windy day, with the truck shuddering and heeling in the wind. We saw a sign saying "High Wind Area, Next 5 Miles", and we thought, "oh, it'll be over soon," but nooo! After five miles, there was another sign saying "High Wind Area, Next 5 Miles". Well, the winds kept up for many miles, and so did the signs.

After dropping our load at Ogden, UT, our next load was a stinker—Clearfield, UT to Salt Lake City, probably all of 30 miles. We also had to play "yard jockey" at the shipper to shuffle trailers. But then we got another good load, Salt Lake City to Graniteville, SC. We had just finished taking a trailer full of raw materials to the Huggies diaper factory; now we would take a trailer full of finished diapers (36,835 lbs worth) to a Kimberly-Clark warehouse back east. We really enjoyed the beauty of the snow-covered mountains in Utah—the scenery was absolutely spectacular. And, we saw it twice—once going in, and again going out.

As I was driving back through Wyoming, I heard a "BANG" and saw strips of rubber flying off the left-rear trailer tire. Damn, a blowout! I slowed down and pulled over and we got out to inspect the damage. The tire was completely shredded, with huge holes and frayed steel belt showing. We put out our emergency triangles and used the Qualcomm to let the company know we had a problem. It took over an hour for them to get back to us; they directed us to drive to a truckstop in Rawlins, WY (about 65 miles away) and get the problem fixed. Luckily, Mike's truck had a spare tire, which would make the process easier. I thought it would be dangerous driving with a blown tire, but it turned out to be no problem—no more pieces of rubber came off. And since the rig had so many tires, there was enough load-carrying capacity with the remaining tires that we didn't overload the remaining tires. In Rawlins, we stopped at Rip Griffin's, a truckstop/oasis in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness. They did a good job mounting the spare, and the price was very reasonable (paid by Swift).

It was dark when we left, and we encountered snow flurries here and there. At one point, the highway hugged the base of Elk Mountain, which at 11,156 feet, can intensify any inclement weather. A snow flurry was in progress, but it kept getting worse and worse. Finally, I was just crawling along through heavy snow that was whipping sideways through the headlights; everything in front of me was uniformly white. Although the snow wasn't deep, it was hard to tell where the road went. In my mirror, I saw that I was the lead truck in a caravan of trucks. I wondered what they would think if they found out this was a Swift truck with two newbies. I heard other drivers talking on the CB, and they referred to the weather phenomenon as a "ground blizzard"—imagine that, I drove through a ground blizzard past Elk Mountain, Wyoming. The blizzard was vicious but short, and we soon found a truckstop and stopped to check the weather. It didn't look too bad, so we kept going.

When we got to Kansas City, Missouri, we stopped for fuel at the Swift terminal in nearby Edwardsville, Kansas. Even though it was late at night, the fuel lane was full and there was a traffic jam in the terminal. A driver waiting in line had turned off his truck, but it wouldn't restart—the battery was dead. Somebody finally came out with a little Bobcat skid loader and pushed the truck out of the way.

Much later, I was driving through the eastern suburbs of Atlanta, GA, heading for the Swift terminal in Decatur for fuel. I had the directions carefully written out, but one signpost was twisted out of view and I missed the turn. Now I discovered how quickly a routine fuel stop can turn into a nightmare. I had to find someplace to turn around, but I kept driving for miles and miles, heading out of town and into a residential area, with no turnarounds available. I was getting really anxious, and stopped to consult the map. A very helpful local truck driver (driving home from work in his pickup truck) guessed my plight and stopped to offer assistance. He told me about a shopping center where I could turn around, and gave me easier directions to get back to the Swift terminal. I found the shopping center and pulled in to turn around, but it was a tight fit. I wound up getting stuck half-way through turning around, and was blocking traffic. I was beginning to panic, and walked over to the other side of the shopping center to see if there was another exit. Meanwhile, while I was reconnoitering and fretting, my co-driver Mike calmly and neatly turned the truck around (aren't co-drivers great!). When I got back to the truck, I hopped in and drove off, and we got to the terminal without any more trouble.

Well, those were our two long trips, to Utah and back; now we would just knock around the east, doing all kinds of short to medium runs. After we dropped the trailer full of diapers in South Carolina, we hooked another trailer of diapers to take to a Sam's Club warehouse in Lakeland, FL. I enjoyed visiting sunny and warm Florida—everything was green in the land that knows no winter. There was some trouble at the Sam's Club warehouse—they rejected one pallet of diapers, saying they were wet (nobody wants to buy used diapers!). We had to drive all the way over to the Swift terminal in Ocala hauling the single pallet of diapers, then we dropped the trailer in the yard.

[Runaway truck ramp]  
A runaway truck ramp somewhere back east in the Appalachians.  

Next, we were directed to pick up a load of furniture in Thomasville, GA, to deliver to a Value City warehouse in Columbus, OH. Unfortunately, the Qualcomm didn't have any directions to the shipper in Georgia. I used my cell phone to call the shipper directly, but it was after hours, and the only person I reached was the guard at the gate. I asked for directions, but he mumbled and stammered and it became clear he didn't really know where he was or how to give directions. I don't think he even knew how to tie his shoelaces. Lucky for us, one of those rare miracles occurred. We arrived in Thomasville late at night and were looking for someplace to stop and ask directions. And what do you know? A small local truckstop materialized, just when we needed it. They not only knew exactly where the shipper was, but they had a detailed local street map posted on the wall. After hooking the load, we headed off to Columbus, OH, passing through Kentucky. I remember driving down a steep hill in Covington, KY, where we would cross the Ohio River into Cincinnati, OH. As I looked across the river from the hillside, I thought the nighttime Cincinnati skyline was quite impressive, all lit-up with lights, including neon lights.

Our next trip was to pick up a trailer full of furniture at the Swift terminal in Columbus, OH, and deliver it to a retail store at a mall in Fishkill, NY. We arrived at the mall after dark and parked for the night. The next morning, we went to unload, but found out that the retail store had moved—Swift didn't know about their new location. Luckily, they just moved to the other end of the mall, so it wasn't a big problem.

Our next trip was supposed to be New York City, but Mike hated big cities and balked. He turned down the New York City pre-plan and we got another pre-plan: Newark, NJ—not much better than New York City. We were to pick up a load of beer (2,156 cases, boy could you have a party with that!) and deliver it to a distributor in Wilmington, NC. This trip started out as a disaster, due to more bad directions from the Qualcomm. Once we got to Newark, the directions said "take the frontage road after exiting the turnpike". As we pulled away from the tollbooth after paying our toll, we could see that the road divided, but couldn't tell which way to go for the frontage road. We guessed "right", but just as we were irreversibly veering off to the right, we saw a sign saying the frontage road was to the left. Damn! We wound up going the wrong way on US 1, heading off to who knows where. I did some quick map reading (I was riding shotgun), and determined that we could go up a little ways, then turn right to pick up the turnpike again. Amazingly enough, this worked, and we wound up back at the same tollbooth again. This time, naturally enough, we turned left, and followed the sign to the frontage road. The directions said we would pass some hotels then see an access road for the beer plant. Well, we passed some hotels, but then came face-to-face with a barrage of signs saying, "Do Not Enter", "Authorized Access Only", etc. Upon closer inspection, we saw that we were heading into a New Jersey state prison camp that was neatly tucked away in beautiful downtown Newark. Not wanting to become residents, we pondered what to do—maybe back up a mile, or make a 32-point turn in the narrow street? My co-driver walked over to a supervisor's shack in the prison maintenance yard and explained our predicament. We were obviously not the first truckers to get lost there, and permission was quickly granted to drive through the maintenance yard to turn the truck around. Since the directions were obviously faulty, I called the customer's number, and after getting call-forwarded a couple of times, got connected to the recorded directions number. I played them back several times, and noticed that the Swift directions left out a vital step: exit the turnpike, GO 2 1/2 MILES, then get on the frontage road, etc. We tried for a third time to find the beer plant—this time, with the all-important step inserted, things worked just fine, and we finally reached the shipper. I have to say, it was extremely frustrating wasting all that time and energy wandering around Newark, NJ trying to find the shipper. What kind of moron could enter those directions into the system, and leave out such an important step? I don't know, but he probably still works for Swift so I shouldn't be too insulting. My poor co-driver hated cities to begin with, and after our getting-lost-in-Newark nightmare, he was physically drained and really soured on "the Swift system".

After dropping the beer in Wilmington, NC, our next trip was to pick up a load of big rolls of kraft paper in Garysburg, NC, and deliver them to a cardboard box factory in Huntington, WV. We took the West Virginia turnpike, which had some pretty spectacular scenery—it reminded me of the mountains out west. We encountered a freak storm with gusty winds. At one point, the winds blew a bunch of twigs and leaves up from the ground and right into the windshield. West Virginia has some dreary-looking towns, but at least they have interesting names—we passed through Nitro and Hurricane on the way.

Our next trip was to pick up some swimming pool chemicals in Charleston, WV and deliver them to an exporter in Charleston, SC (neato—Charleston to Charleston). The chemicals were being exported to Italy via containership. The load assignment message indicated it was a hazmat load, which was a first for us, so we spent quite a while reading up on hazmat procedures to make sure we were OK (we had to get a permit faxed to us). Once we got to the shipper, it turned out it wasn't a hazmat load after all. Due to the specific formulation of the product (sodium dichloroisocyanurate dihydrate, just in case you were interested), it wasn't classified as hazmat (because it was the dihydrate version). Sometimes you have to become an instant chemical engineer!

Next, we picked up load of plastic in Lugoff, SC, and dropped the trailer in the yard at the Swift terminal in Eden, NC. Whew! Somebody else would deliver that load—it's time to take a couple of days off. Now, I experienced what a nuisance it was training out of Eden. Mike had a short drive to his home in Yadkinville, but I had a six to seven hour drive, each way, to my home in Baltimore. It was hardly worth it. I spent so much time driving back and forth, that when I arrived back at Eden, I was just as tired as when I left.

[Truckload of Detroit Diesels]  
Detroit Diesels filling the inside of our trailer. We hauled the load from the engine factory in Detroit to a Freightliner assembly plant in North Carolina.  

Mike and I would spend eight more days together, hauling 7,082 lbs of pillows from Virginia to Kentucky; 19,192 lbs of shovels from Kentucky to a Sears warehouse in Wilkes-Barre, PA; Proctor & Gamble merchandise from Tunkhannock, PA to two Sam's Clubs in suburban Detroit, MI; 43,400 lbs of Detroit Diesels to a Freightliner factory in Cleveland, NC; furniture from North Carolina to Ruther Glen, VA; and 45,074 lbs of copper rods from Richmond to the Swift terminal in Greer, SC.

We were routed to the Greer terminal because it was time for us to split up. Mike had accumulated four weeks of driving time with a trainee co-driver; it was time for him to solo. We needed to attend a training course in Greer for drivers about to solo, covering mostly defensive driving and proper logbook techniques. After that, Mike drove us to Eden and we parted company. I enjoyed driving with Mike. We got along fine, and he was a very competent driver. I wish him well. As a plus, I had added five more states to my training total (MO, KS, UT, KY, FL), so I now had 35 states.


Driving With My Second Trainee Co-Driver

Mike had completed his four weeks of training, but I still needed a few more days with a trainee co-driver before I could solo. (Mike had actually offered to extend his training time so we could both solo at the same time, but this plan ran into so many problems that we were forced to abandon it.) I talked with my driver manager in Richmond and found out the situation there was the same—plenty of trainees but no trucks. After waiting nearly two weeks (with no pay!), I finally was assigned a truck—a Freightliner Century-Class that looked to be in pretty good condition. This time, I would be "first-seat driver" and would keep the truck when my training was complete. My driver manager worked out a plan to team me up with another trainee co-driver who also needed a few more days of training. We would take a load from Virginia to the Swift terminal in Phoenix, AZ, where another Richmond truck was waiting. The trip would take enough time that we could both solo when we arrived in Phoenix. My co-driver would get the truck that was waiting in Phoenix, and I would keep my truck. Then we would split up and start solo driving, each in his own truck.

To make a long story short, it didn't work out that way. Despite its good looks, my truck failed its pre-trip inspection (air brake and steering problems, among other things) and went into the Richmond shop. For days, and days, and days. Eventually, we got a loaner truck to make a few runs and earn some money. By the time my truck was finally fixed, the Phoenix deal had evaporated (the truck out there had been assigned to someone else). We finally started driving together, but instead of a long and interesting trip, we did a bunch of little jobs knocking around the mid-Atlantic region. Not much fun, and pretty forgettable.

Solo Driving At Last

I went solo in Richmond on April 15, 2003 (income tax day). There was no fanfare, no tests—my co-driver simply packed up and left and I was on my own. I thought I would be a little more excited, but I wasn't. The ordeal of waiting to get the truck fixed and having so much of my time wasted left a sour taste in my mouth. But I was finally solo, and that was my goal. I will tell you about my solo driving experiences in the next section of this journal.

Regards,

John
Baltimore, MD

(P.S. If you want to contact me, my email address is johnsantic at gmail.com.)

Comments and Observations

As with Section 1, I have added a few more comments about my likes and dislikes. Keep in mind, these are my own personal opinions; others may have different opinions.

What I Liked

What I Didn't Like

Other Comments

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