Section 3 - Solo Driving 

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. I wrote the second section in April and May 2003 after I found a driving job and completed the additional company training on the road. The third section follows, below. I wrote this section in June through September 2003 after completing one month of solo driving.

Hauling Regional Freight

[My Freightliner truck]  
The Freightliner Century-Class truck that I drove while solo.  

As I explained in the previous section of my journal, I had spent many weeks driving as a team to complete my on-the-job training. I had driven with two different experienced drivers and two different trainees, hauling loads all over the country. I finally reached my goal of becoming a solo driver on April 15, 2003 at the Swift terminal in Richmond, VA (my home terminal).

As a new solo driver, it quickly became clear that I wouldn't be hauling any plum coast-to-coast loads. I suspect that most of those loads are reserved for drivers with more seniority or for teams that keep the truck rolling all the time. Most of the time, I hauled regional freight, traveling within a few states of my home terminal in Richmond. The trips tended to be of short to medium length, so there wasn't much variety in the scenery. I'll give you the rundown of my month of solo driving:


Trip 1 - Richmond, VA to Little Falls, NY (32,924 lbs of medical supplies) - I was dispatched on this trip the same day I went solo, after my last co-driver packed up and left: Take a trailer of freight from the Swift terminal in Richmond to a customer in central New York. This load was a "T-call", meaning it was transferred from one driver to another. Sometimes a driver doesn't take a load all the way from the shipper to the receiver, but instead will drop the trailer at a Swift terminal along the way. A common reason for doing this is when the driver is being routed to his/her home terminal for "home time". The dispatchers can't always find a load to be delivered in the driver's home city (in this case, Richmond). Instead, they assign the driver a load that passes through Richmond on its way to somewhere else. The driver drops the trailer at the Richmond terminal and heads home; then a different driver (me, in this case) hooks the trailer and takes it to the final destination.

[Interior of cab]  
The interior of the cab. The Qualcomm keyboard on top of the dashboard slips into a plastic bracket so it doesn't slide around. To the left of the keyboard, you can see where I mounted my cell phone (I used a hands-free headset).  

The trip started out OK, but I soon noticed a problem that became more and more serious. The truck handled OK on flat roads, but whenever it went up a hill, the engine lost power and began "missing", as if a cylinder wasn't firing properly. On slight hills, the problem was annoying but tolerable, but on the steeper hills of Pennsylvania, the problem became quite troublesome. I had to downshift more gears more than usual, and had to crawl up the hills with the engine throbbing and vibrating. I was concerned that the vibration under load might damage the drive train, so after delivering the load, I reported the problem to my driver manager. He said to send a Qualcomm message to the Swift "On Road" service department, and they directed me to the Swift terminal in Syracuse, NY.

At this point, I was a little distraught. I had recently endured a lengthy (and unpaid) delay waiting for the truck to be fixed at the Richmond terminal, and now the truck was back in the shop again, in Syracuse. Boy, it can be pretty hard to earn a living in this business! It wound up taking three full days for the repairs (a fuel injector had to be repaired, plus the alternator was replaced to fix an unrelated problem). To his credit, my driver manager paid me for three breakdown days, so at least I got some compensation. But breakdown pay is only $40 per 24-hour period, so it's hardly more than pocket change.

And now another problem reared its ugly head—it was now the weekend and there was no freight heading out of central New York. I had heard of this problem from other drivers, where they got a load into New York but no load out, and had to endure lengthy delays. In my case, the dispatcher ordered me to deadhead (that is, haul an empty trailer) all the way to the Swift terminal in Columbus, Ohio, with the expectation that a load would turn up by the time I got there. I deadheaded to Ohio, but then had to wait an extra day for a load (I received $40 layover pay). As an aside, Swift pays for deadhead miles at the same rate as for loaded miles. I never minded deadheading—in fact, I preferred it. I got paid the same amount and got to enjoy the peppy acceleration and easy hill-climbing of hauling an empty trailer. (Stopping distances are longer when empty, though.)

As another aside, when you read about me encountering delays—three days here, one day there—it might not sound too bad. But keep in mind a couple of things. First of all, you don't know in advance how long the delay will be. When you show up at the Syracuse shop with a broken truck, nobody comes out and tells you, "OK, that will take three days, go off and have a good time while you're waiting". In fact, nobody tells you anything. You fill out a form describing the symptoms, drop off your keys, then retire to the driver's lounge and wait. Several times a day, you plod over to the shop and ask, "how's it going", to get a status update. You do this day after day, until finally when you ask, "how's it going", they say, "it's done", and you get to leave. Personally, I find this very frustrating—after all, I'm trying to earn a living, and "time is money". But there's nothing you can do about it, so you just have to endure an impediment of unknown (and frequently lengthy) duration. My second point is that waiting can be very, very boring. Since you don't know in advance how long it's going to take, you can't plan on doing anything else other than waiting. This is especially true when waiting for a dispatch. You sit there in the truck waiting for the Qualcomm to beep, indicating a pre-plan has been received. It could beep in the next five seconds, or it could beep two days from now. Meanwhile, you wait, and maybe read a book, do company paperwork, or catch some sleeper time, etc.

Trip 2 - Blacklick, OH to Bronx, NY (4,850 lbs of empty plastic bottles) - Oh joy! I get to drive not just THROUGH New York City, but actually INTO New York City. And not namby-pamby Queens, but the South Bronx, one of the toughest areas of the city. As I pondered the load assignment message, I was kinda hopin' the Qualcomm would beep again, and say "sorry, we sent you that assignment by mistake, please ignore it", but no such luck—I would be worming my way deep into the rotten core of The Big Apple.

To start with, I knew the load would be carried in a 53-foot trailer, and I knew that 53-foot trailers weren't legal in New York City, unless you were just passing through on an interstate. If you wanted to take a 53-foot trailer on local roads, you had to contact an agent and get a special permit that was so fussy and nit-picking it would be prohibitively annoying to get. (I learned some of this from my driver trainer and learned more on the internet.) Since Swift trucks couldn't get the permits (due to logistical difficulties), I could use this legal restriction as a "get out of jail free" card to avoid New York City if I wanted to press the point. I could call my driver manager and refuse the load because the trailer wouldn't have the required permit. But on the other hand, I don't like to turn down assignments, and I had heard that many drivers take 53-foot trailers into the city—indeed, Carol and I did just that during my training. It didn't seem like a major risk, so I decided to accept the assignment even though technically it would be violating New York City trucking regulations.

I found the shipper in Ohio without difficulty, picked up the load, and started heading east. The route included a stop at the Swift terminal in Jonestown, PA, for fuel; I stayed overnight so I would be properly positioned to make my run into the city the next day. While passing through New Jersey, I stopped at a truckstop and bought a street-level map of New York City (the motor carrier's atlas didn't have enough detail). I made a point of writing out detailed directions, especially for the route through the city, to minimize the chances of getting lost.

Despite my best efforts, I still wandered off the route in the Bronx. When I exited the highway on to local roads, I didn't realize I had to immediately move left several lanes to make the correct left turn. I didn't even realize I had missed the turn until I had gone a few blocks, but after I realized my mistake, I pulled over, turned on my four-way flashers, and consulted the street-level map. I worked out a plan to rejoin my route by making three right turns, at the correct places of course, picking roads that looked to be major roads. Surprisingly enough, the plan worked (although one of the turns was very tight) and I got headed in the right direction on the right road. (In retrospect, it was essential to have a good street-level map that I could use while driving, otherwise I would have had a much more difficult time. Don't leave home without it!)

Once I reached the customer, I saw that they didn't have a loading dock; I would have to parallel-park along the curb and they would unload me in the street. There were other trucks in the street being loaded/unloaded, including one that was double-parked. It was a very tight squeeze getting past this truck—at one point, I swear I had less than an inch of clearance on each side of my trailer. To unload me, they used a forklift and a pallet jack (which is a small hand-operated forklift). The forklift placed the pallet jack in the back of my trailer, then a man climbed into the trailer and used the pallet jack to manually move pallets to the very end of the trailer. A second man used the forklift to pick up the pallets from the tailgate and transport them into the building. Inside, they had a line of packaging machinery that would squirt some kind of goo into the empty bottles and affix a "Victoria's Secret" label.

Normally, once you deliver a load, you wait around until you get your next load assignment via the Qualcomm. I didn't want to hang out in the South Bronx, though, so I called my driver manager and asked for advice. He recommended that I "get out of Dodge" and hang out at the Vince Lombardi Service Plaza on the New Jersey Turnpike. This service plaza has some major advantages: it's convenient to New York City, it has lots of truck parking, you don't have to pay a toll to reach it, and you can head north or south on the turnpike when leaving. This turned out to be a good hangout, and I used it on other trips, too.

Despite the scary reputation of the South Bronx, all the people I met were friendly and helpful; they even gave me good directions for an easy truck route out of the city.

Trip 3 - Montgomery, NY to North Brunswick, NJ (30,770 lbs of office-supply merchandise) - I had time to kill, so I took an eight-hour rest break at the Vince Lombardi Service Plaza, then headed north for a 1:00 AM pickup at a Staples warehouse in New York . I got there early hoping the preloaded trailer would be ready, but it wasn't, so I had another two-and-a-half hours to kill. Once the load was ready, I had to hurry because there was barely enough time to make the delivery appointment in New Jersey. (As an aside, this is one of the more annoying aspects of trucking: Sometimes you have hours and hours to kill, and all that time gets wasted. Next thing you know, you're desperately short of time and have to hurry, hurry, hurry! And it's all beyond your control; you're just a pawn whose movements are controlled by others.)

When I got to North Brunswick, I had trouble finding the customer. I had been driving slowly, counting off the street addresses, when suddenly the address numbers skipped a few addresses including the customer's address. It turned out there were several buildings set well back from the street on a long driveway; I didn't see them in the dark. I tried to get turned around but couldn't find anyplace good. To my chagrin, I wound up in a cul-de-sac residential area, and it was a real struggle to extricate the rig. You might think this would be easy to avoid, but in the pre-dawn darkness, in an unfamiliar area, when you're tired and getting desperate, it's pretty easy to make a little mistake that is very difficult and time-consuming to undo.

When I finally got to the customer, they had a ridiculously tight loading dock that was recessed deep into the building and down an inclined ramp. It took me lots of pull-ups but I finally "got it in there". After being unloaded, I couldn't pull away from the dock in the desired direction, due to vehicles parked in the maneuvering space. I had to head in the wrong direction, then back-up all the way down the long driveway, and back-up out into the street. (The forklift driver walked into the street and directed traffic, which was a big help.) And I still wasn't done with the load. There was some returned merchandise, so I had to drive all the way back to the warehouse, drop the trailer, and hook an empty. Whew! What a stressful night!

Trip 4 - Brentwood, NY to Savannah, GA (14,000 lbs of paper napkins) - Due to the difficulty I had with the previous load, I got a late start on this load. It started out stressfully—shouldering my way through morning traffic on the notoriously bumpy roads of New York City, then working my way out to eastern Long Island through miles of road construction. But the rest of the trip was much more relaxed. I managed to stop in Baltimore to pick up my mail and check on my boat (which is where I live). I can only stop there in the dead of night or in the wee hours of the morning, since I have to park the rig on the street and can only find enough consecutive empty parking spaces in the off-hours. I stopped at the Swift terminal in Richmond for fuel, then spent the night at a spacious and comfortable TA truckstop in Kenly, NC.

When I finally got to Savannah, I found the Dollar Tree warehouse easily, but I then ran into one of the most trying experiences of my so-far brief career. The trailer was packed completely full with 780 cartons of paper napkins, and the load wasn't palletized. The warehouse crew started unloading me at 2:00 PM and didn't finish until 10:30 PM—eight-and-a-half hours to unload! I could have done it faster by myself, with one hand tied behind my back. The worst part was that I had already received my next load assignment and it had an evening pickup appointment on this same night. I really, really hate to be late for an appointment, so I was very anxious while waiting for the unloading to be finished. At one point, the whole crew disappeared for more than an hour for a leisurely dinner, then they unloaded other people, unloaded me a little more, and basically just puttered along without a care in the world. This is one of the most shameful aspects of trucking—everybody knows the driver doesn't get paid while waiting, so everybody flagrantly wastes the driver's time whenever it's convenient. After all, it didn't cost them a cent to waste all those hours of my time, and I got paid literally nothing despite being required to wait in-attendance for more than eight hours. Plus, I missed my next pickup to-boot! (My pickup had to be rescheduled for the next morning.)

I hadn't planned on spending the night in Savannah, but I couldn't leave until the next morning. I drove around the area visiting truckstops, but being late at night, they were all packed full. I finally found a place to park in a muddy overflow lot at a truckstop in Hardeeville, SC. It had been a very, very frustrating night, but at least it was over.

[Picture of my Freightliner truck]  
My Freightliner Century-Class truck, parked at a rest area on the Delaware Turnpike while waiting to deliver to K-Mart stores in the Philadephia suburbs. The trailer is chock-full of Martha Stewart patio furniture.  

Trip 5 - Savannah, GA to Strafford, Eagleville, Norristown, Willow Grove, and Phoenixville, PA - (16,999 lbs of patio furniture) - Just reading the trip title should give you a hint that something was different about this trip. For this trip, I would pick up a load of Martha Stewart patio furniture and deliver it to five K-Marts in the Philadelphia suburbs. All five deliveries would take place on the same day, and with K-Mart loads, the driver has to hand-unload the trailer at each stop. This would be a test, no doubt! When you think of all the work that goes into making ONE delivery—the detailed trip planning, the careful navigation, the driving and maneuvering, handling the paperwork, coping with problems, etc.—now I would have to make FIVE deliveries in one day! What's more, at each stop, I would have to hand-unload the non-palletized cargo. By the end of that day, I would have unloaded an entire 53-foot trailer, providing a real test of my strength and stamina. Sitting down there in Savannah before I even picked up the load, I was really wondering: Could I pass this test? Could I actually do all that work in one day? Well, there's only one way to find out.

I had a little trouble at the shipper. The merchandise had been imported from China (can't WE make patio furniture??) and transferred from shipping containers to a 53-foot trailer. Then the trailer had been stashed somewhere on the grounds of a huge import/export shipping facility along the Savannah River. The shipping facility was like a small city, and I had to wander around a bit before I found the proper trailer storage yard. I heard other Swift drivers on the CB also trying to find their way. After hooking the trailer, I started heading north. My goal was to spend the first night at the Swift terminal in Richmond, VA, since the terminal was already on my route as a fuel stop. I got there about 9:00 PM and fueled-up, but the terminal yard was so jammed with trucks and trailers that I could barely thread my way through to the exit—there was no place to park at all. I wound up spending the night in the overflow lot at the TA in Ashland, VA, just north of Richmond.

Now I had to do some careful trip planning. To expedite my deliveries, I wanted to spend the next night camped-out at the first K-Mart in Strafford, PA. I could then start unloading first thing in the morning, and I would start out well-rested. However, it's only a four-hour drive from Ashland, VA to Strafford, PA, and I didn't want to show up at the K-Mart in the late morning and wait there all day and night. A K-Mart is not a truckstop, and it's not a convenient place for a long wait. Also, an early arrival would require me to do all my driving and maneuvering in mid-day traffic, which might be difficult in a congested suburban shopping area. On the other hand, I didn't want to arrive at the K-Mart too late in the evening. I needed to log at least eight hours of sleeper-berth time at the K-Mart, so I could recharge my driving hours for the next day. I decided to drive from Ashland, VA to the big rest area on the Delaware Turnpike, then wait there until evening. Once traffic died down and the K-Mart closed for the night, I would drive from Delaware to Strafford, PA and park the remainder of the night at the K-Mart.

This plan worked very well. I arrived at the deserted K-Mart and had plenty of room to maneuver—which was good, because I missed the turn for the truck entrance and had to work my way through the car parking area. After resting about nine hours, the next morning, I was ready to unload when they opened the store at 7:00 AM. The unloading went surprisingly well. This K-Mart didn't have a loading dock, so they used a pallet jack inside the trailer and a forklift outside. They would put an empty pallet in the trailer and I would drag it to the merchandise and start piling boxes on it. A very energetic man from K-Mart helped stack the merchandise, then he used the pallet jack to move the pallet to the tailgate. Another man used the forklift to transport the pallet to a storage area near the building. We kept this up and unloaded more and more merchandise. Theoretically, we were supposed to check off each item on the bill of lading as it was unloaded, but there was a handy shortcut. When the trailer was loaded, the shipper placed a large sheet of plastic across the width of the trailer to separate each store's merchandise. We kept unloading boxes until we reached the sheet of plastic. Then we counted all the boxes we had unloaded and made sure the tally agreed with the total on the paperwork. At that point, they signed for the load and I left. Later on, the K-Mart staff could check off each item, line by line.

In theory, I was assigned two hours for each delivery, including driving to the next store. And what do you know? I arrived at the second K-Mart at 9:00 AM, exactly two hours after the first K-Mart. So far, so good. (This was immensely reassuring—I might actually survive the day!) The second K-Mart took only an hour, including driving to the third K-Mart—hot damn, I was on a roll! The third K-Mart took two hours; I was still ahead of schedule. The fourth K-Mart took three-and-a-half hours. Hey, what happened?

Well, when I arrived, the receiving manager took one look at the bill of lading and refused to accept the load. Just recently, each of the K-Marts had received a full load of Martha Stewart patio furniture, which was now packed into every nook and cranny of the store's receiving area (the boxes were big and bulky). They just didn't have any more room to accept another load of patio furniture. On the other hand, I couldn't drive to the next store with this store's merchandise still clogging up the trailer. What to do? Dump the stuff in the parking lot? (Martha wouldn't like that!) As it turned out, stores are not allowed to refuse merchandise. The load assignment message on my Qualcomm had a magic phone number to call for problem resolution, which magically caused space to appear inside the store, so all the merchandise could be unloaded after all. At this store, I didn't get any help stacking merchandise inside the trailer—out of spite, I think. The last K-Mart took a little over two hours; I had helpers, but by now, I was slowing down a little. When the doors were finally slammed shut on the empty trailer, I had survived the day and I had passed the test! What a relief! I was actually proud to have achieved so much in one day—this definitely gave me some bragging rights.

As a final note, on my next home time, I was leafing through the Sunday paper and came across the K-Mart ad...featuring Martha Stewart patio furniture! Aarrrrghh, get it away from me! I've seen enough of that furniture for a lifetime!

Trip 6 - Milesburg, PA to Disputanta, VA (28,658 lbs of bottled water, which was in 32,544 bottles) - There was a hiccup on my next dispatch. I was originally assigned to take a trailer full of wood chips from the Swift terminal in Jonestown, PA to a customer in Maryland. After receiving the load assignment message, I spent the usual hour (or so) processing all the information, working out a detailed trip plan, writing down directions, filling out some of the paperwork, etc. I drove over to the terminal at Jonestown, but when I got there, I couldn't find the trailer, even after scrutinizing the entire terminal twice. Then I just happened to notice a trailer in the shop, and you guessed it—it was my trailer. There were brake problems and it wouldn't be ready until tomorrow (they were waiting for parts). After talking to the dispatchers, they decided to cancel the wood chip load. I suppose that was the best thing to do, but I was still annoyed that my time and effort was wasted (without pay, of course).

I spent the night at the Swift terminal in Jonestown without knowing what I would be doing next. The next morning, I got dispatched to pick up a load of bottled water in central Pennsylvania and deliver it the next evening to a Food Lion warehouse in Disputanta, VA, which is southeast of Petersburg. Because of Pennsylvania's hilly geography, there is no interstate highway from Jonestown to Milesburg, but at least it was a picturesque and interesting drive. I did a drop-and-hook at the shipper and spent the night at a TA truckstop that was literally right next to the shipper.

The next day, while driving through Virginia, I noticed another problem with the truck. It had turned into a warm day (one of the first of the season), and I discovered that the air conditioner didn't work. It wasn't exactly sweltering, but it did become uncomfortably hot in the cab, especially while parked during the live unload. The good thing was that I would now get some home time, so when I got back to the Richmond terminal, I dropped the truck off at the shop (again!) and got the heck out of there.

During orientation, we had been told that we could take the truck home during home time. To make this work out, the dispatchers would give you a load that either delivered close to your home city, or passed through your home city on its way to somewhere else. I had mixed feelings about taking the truck home to Baltimore. Even though Baltimore is heavily industrialized and very truck-friendly, you still have to figure out a specific way to accommodate your particular truck. Where I live, it's rarely possible to park a big rig on the street. It might be possible to find on-street parking somewhere else, or use a nearby truckstop, shopping mall, or industrial park. But it's still a nuisance working out all the details and somehow shuttling back and forth between the truck and home. Plus, you have to worry about the security of the unattended truck and its load. Therefore, I had decided that I would normally leave the truck at the Richmond terminal and drive my personal car back and forth to Baltimore. That's not a perfect solution either, but it was the best I could come up with for now, and I had informed my driver manager to route me to the Richmond terminal for home time. For this particular home time, instead of going to Baltimore, I visited my mother, who lives in central Virginia. My chronological account will continue after the following sidebar.

Sidebar: What I Brought With Me

In the Section 2 of my journal, I listed the items I took with me during my training. This consisted mostly of personal items, since I assumed my driver trainer would have additional items for the truck. Once I started driving solo, however, I needed to acquire many more items. When my truck was assigned to me, it was basically a bare truck with practically no supplies or accessories. The truck had a zippered book holding all the permits and registrations, and a set of three red reflective triangles for emergency use. The last driver left a few items, such as a spare headlight, spare wiper blades, and a jug of oil. Here are the additional items I brought with me (in addition to the items I listed in Section 2):

Hauling Regional Freight (cont'd)

Trip 7 - Richmond, VA to Avenel, NJ (40,416 lbs of empty glass bottles, which was 80,640 bottles) - After my home time, I drove my car back to the terminal in Richmond and picked up the truck from the shop. A minor miracle had occurred—they had repaired the air-conditioning system properly and on-time! Unfortunately, I now encountered a different problem—it was Saturday, and freight was slow. I hung out in the terminal building for a couple of hours while the dispatcher tried to find something for me to do. The best they could find was a short run taking a load of empty beer bottles to New Jersey. The good news was that the trailer was already in the Richmond terminal yard; the bad news was that the load didn't deliver until Monday afternoon—I would have a day and a half to kill.

They dispatched me north to New Jersey so I could kill the time in Baltimore, where I lived. This would also give me a trial-run of keeping the truck in Baltimore during home time. I already knew there was a drop-yard in Elkridge, MD, just south of Baltimore. I planned to drop the trailer in Elkridge, install a kingpin lock (which would prevent another tractor from hooking the trailer), then bobtail to my residence. I live on my boat at a marina in Baltimore, and although the marina has adequate off-street parking for cars, I wasn't sure I could maneuver the tractor through the narrow lanes in the parking lot. (I knew I couldn't get the whole rig into the lot—that would be completely impossible.)

After dropping the trailer, I arrived at the marina in mid-evening. I headed toward the parking lot, but at the last minute, I chickened out. There is a narrow, gated entry lane, after which you must turn sharply right or left, and it looked too cramped for the tractor. I went around the block and parked the tractor on the street, then walked over to the marina parking lot and paced-off the distances. It was very tight, and I didn't want to run over the curb or take excessive time jockeying the tractor through the lot. The lot was for cars, and I felt pretty sure that a big truck wouldn't be welcome. The last thing I wanted to do was to cause a commotion and draw attention to myself. Instead, I wound up parking the tractor on the street. Since I wasn't feeding the parking meters, I slept in the truck overnight to make sure it wasn't ticketed or towed away—the on-street parking in this neighborhood was for cars-only.

To make a long story short, it wasn't a very exciting visit. Having the big truck was like having an albatross around your neck—it created difficulties everywhere. I did some grocery shopping where I knew the tractor could park without problems, then spent most of the day hanging out in a park near the Patapsco River where I knew there wouldn't be parking problems, either. The second night, I bobtailed over to the big truckstop off I-95 in Jessup, MD, and spent the night there. Early the next morning, I returned to the drop yard and hooked my trailer, then headed north to New Jersey. Overall, I decided that keeping the truck in Baltimore would be a royal pain—definitely not worth the effort.

When I arrived at the delivery location, I almost missed the turn into the industrial park. Luckily, the street was wide enough so I could pull over and wait for traffic to pass. I managed to back up a couple of truck lengths while there was no traffic, and pulled into the warehouse area. The rest of the delivery went just fine—I was unloaded in less than an hour. The downside was that the short run only paid 305 miles ( x 26 cents = $79.30), which was for just over two days of my time.

Trip 8 - South Plainfield, NJ to Cheshire, CT (42,297 lbs of groceries) - The next assignment was another short run, hauling 2,058 cases of canned goods to a grocery warehouse in Connecticut, all of 132 paid miles. The trailer was at the Swift terminal in South Plainfield, NJ, a real dump of a terminal. When I got there, I had to drop my empty trailer, but all the good parking places were already taken (that is, the places that were easy to back into). I had to back up partially around a corner on the sight-side (the driver's side), and at the last minute convert it to a blind-side backing (using only the mirrors on the passenger's side), all while dodging huge water-filled potholes. Surprisingly enough, the maneuver went well, and it took only a few pull-ups to "get it in there". Thankfully, the grocery trailer was easy to hook.

The delivery appointment was for 2:00 AM, so I had some time to kill. I drove over to the Vince Lombardi Service Plaza on the New Jersey Turnpike and hung out there for a few hours. As I mentioned earlier, this is a good place to hang out, provided you get there no later than early evening—despite its large size, the plaza gets jam-packed full every night. I found the warehouse in Connecticut without any trouble, but had to wait a while to get assigned to a dock for unloading. This was a huge facility with literally hundreds of loading docks, but they were very busy and there was a waiting list.

Once I backed in, I went inside to present the paperwork and discovered that this was a "driver unload" facility. In theory, this meant that I would have to unload the 42,297 lbs of canned goods by myself. But from a practical point of view, neither the warehouse nor Swift really wants the truck driver to unload (drivers are not necessarily strong and fit, and would probably be too slow and prone to injury). Instead, you hire a "lumper", which is a person (or small crew) who unloads the truck for you. They work as independent contractors and don't work for the warehouse, although the warehouse obviously has some control over who lumps at their facility. To hire a lumper, you show them the paperwork listing the weight and number of cases/pallets and let them look into the trailer to judge the amount of work. They quote you a price, and you go back to the tractor and send a "lumper request" message on the Qualcomm. In a (hopefully) short time, you receive a response message either approving the request or making a lower counter-offer to the lumper. Once all parties agree on the price, the lumper proceeds with the unloading. When done, you give the lumper a special check called a "Com-Check" that has some special code numbers on it (that you get from the Qualcomm response message). Before you drive away, the lumper telephones the Com-Check company and provides the code numbers. The company then confirms that the funds are on-deposit and available to the lumper. This allows the truck driver to handle lumper payments without carrying around wads of cash. Depending on the size of the load, the lumper might get paid from $100 to $200, more or less. In my case, the lumper charged $130, which was a reasonable price; Swift agreed to the amount without further negotiation.

It wound up taking several hours for unloading; since you don't know this in advance, you can't really do anything other than wait. Also, this facility, like many facilities, uses a small red/green traffic light next to each loading dock to signal when unloading is complete (the light turns green). So you need to stay awake to watch the light. I was finally empty at 5:30 AM, and headed over to a truckstop in nearby Milldale, CT to take an eight-hour rest break.

Trip 9 - Monroe Township, NJ to Glen Allen, VA (42,761 lbs of general merchandise) - The Qualcomm beeped with my next assignment about mid-day, part-way through my rest break. I had to deadhead down to the Costco warehouse off the New Jersey Turnpike and pick up a load of general merchandise (the Costco paperwork never tells you specifically what you are carrying). The load had to be delivered at 5:00 AM the next morning to a Costco store in the western suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. To get down to New Jersey, I wound up battling the midafternoon traffic through New York City and across the George Washington Bridge—at least heading south, you don't have to pay the $30 bridge toll. When I arrived at the Costco warehouse in early evening, the load wasn't ready yet, so I had a few hours to kill (I sure wind up murdering a lot of time!)

It was an uneventful trip down to the Costco store, but when I arrived in the wee hours of the morning, there was a traffic jam in the parking lot. For some inexplicable reason, the store had scheduled six trucks to arrive at the same time. Since they had only two usable docks, as usual, I had to wait. After three hours, they finally assigned me to a dock. Lucky for me, they had an empty Swift trailer on the property, so instead of waiting for them to unload my trailer (which could take additional hours), they let me drop my loaded trailer, hook the empty trailer, then depart. At 5:30 AM, I headed over to the TA truckstop in Ashland, VA for an eight-hour rest break. Even though the Richmond Swift terminal was very close, I went to the truckstop instead. The truckstop was bigger and better, had a restaurant and convenience store, and had clean showers (unlike the scummy Swift shower). (Although it cost $7.00 to take a shower at the truckstop, Swift reimbursed this expense.) In theory, the Richmond terminal was supposed to be my "home-away-from-home", but this honor befell the Ashland TA truckstop since I liked it much better. In reality, even a nice truckstop is a poor substitute for your own "home, sweet home", and the Ashland truckstop is only mediocre as far as truckstops go.

Trip 10 - Williamsburg, VA to Woodland, PA (17,800 lbs of general merchandise) - A couple hours after I arrived at the Ashland TA, I got my next dispatch to take a Wal-mart load over to their warehouse in central Pennsylvania. I had enough time to take a full eight-hour rest break at the TA, but that doesn't necessarily mean I got eight hours of relaxing sleep. It usually turns out that a few hours of a rest break get used up by chores, such as: taking a shower (perhaps including waiting in line if the truckstop is busy), having a meal, sending/receiving Qualcomm messages for your next assignment, perhaps calling your driver manager, planning your next route (including writing out detailed directions), updating your logbook, filling out company paperwork, inspecting/maintaining the truck (cleaning windows and mirrors, checking tires, fluids, lights, brakes, etc.), doing personal chores (paying bills, raiding the ATM, laundry, food shopping, calling relatives or friends to let them know you're still alive, keeping your journal, etc.), entertainment (TV, radio, books/magazines). In fact, there are so many things that intrude into your "rest" break, it's a wonder you have any time to rest at all! On top of all that, your rest break might occur in the middle of the day (like it did for me, this time) when it's hard to fall asleep.

I got rolling in the early afternoon, stopped at the Richmond terminal for fuel, then headed over to the Wal-Mart warehouse in Williamsburg. It was an easy drop and hook (as usual), but I ran into a problem immediately. I noticed the trailer had a weird hand-made license plate, so I retrieved the registration from the plastic storage container to check it out. The registration was a temporary registration while they were waiting for new license plates, but the temporary registration had expired. It took nearly an hour to get this problem fixed—I called Swift headquarters in Phoenix and had them fax me a new temporary registration (the very nice man in the Wal-Mart office let me use their fax machine).

The route proceeded more-or-less diagonally from eastern Virginia to central Pennsylvania, but there wasn't any direct superhighway connection, just a mish-mash of state highways, US highways, and an interstate or two thrown in for good measure. I planned to spend the night at the Swift terminal in Martinsburg, WV, which was along the route just off I-81. When I got there, I exited the highway and drove down the local roads looking for the terminal. I kept going, and going, and going—hey, where the heck was the terminal? I got very frustrated as I realized that I must have screwed up the directions. I finally found a place to pull over and discovered that I exited the highway one exit too soon. I wasted a very aggravating 45 minutes on this snafu, all the more aggravating because it was a dumb mistake on my part. When I finally got to the terminal, I saw that the parking lot was a sea of mud (it had been raining for hours and the lot was mostly unpaved dirt). I was already pissed-off about getting lost, and now I was upset about the prospect of wading through gooey mud and getting the truck interior all dirty, just to use the bathroom. I solved the problem by not getting out of the truck at all (I used a "piss jug" instead).

The next day, I resumed driving and found the Wal-Mart warehouse without any difficulties. Although the route hadn't been direct or speedy, at least it had been interesting and scenic. There were more difficulties at the warehouse. The trailer drop yard was very "dense", with trailers parked very close together without much maneuvering room in front. I had an embarrassingly difficult time backing into the very narrow parking space, but I finally got it in there and dropped the trailer. Then I couldn't find the proper section of the yard to pick up an empty trailer. I was looking for section "M", but I drove all over the yard looking at the signboards on the light poles and didn't find it. It turns out that there was no sign for "M", you just had to go to the particular section of the yard that didn't have any signboard at all. Then I had trouble finding a good empty trailer (that is, where all the tires were good and all the lights worked). And just while I was going through all this rigmarole, I got my next dispatch and the Qualcomm demanded immediate attention. After I hooked an empty, I headed over to a nearby truckstop about noontime to take a shower and process the next load assignment. All in all, I have to say this was a very aggravating trip—there were many small but annoying difficulties.

Trip 11 - Erie, PA to Lakewood, NJ (9,538 lbs of empty plastic bottles) - Normally, when I get a pre-plan message with a potential assignment, I work out all the details before I accept the assignment. I verify several things: that I have enough time to make the pickup and delivery appointments (based on actual miles, not paid miles which are less), that I won't run out of driving and on-duty hours, and that I have enough time for rest breaks. I had hastily accepted this assignment right in the middle of the drop and hook at Wal-Mart. After taking a shower and getting a bite to eat, I returned to the truck and started working out the details. Yikes! It looked like I wouldn't be able to make the 9:00 AM delivery appointment at the receiver in New Jersey. I had already accepted the assignment, so I had to figure out some way to handle it. The basic problem was that I would need lots of driving hours, and I would have to squeeze-in an eight-hour rest break to recharge my driving hours to the full ten hours. Plus, the route included a fuel stop. I called my driver manager for advice, and we worked out a strategy. First of all, we came up with a new route that was quicker and avoided an out-of-the-way fuel stop at the Swift terminal in Jonestown. Then, he told me to go off-duty and start my rest break while waiting for the live loading at the shipper in Erie, so the time spent waiting there could count as part of my rest break. Nevertheless, it would still be tight, and he contacted the account manager to see if the delivery time could be rescheduled. I managed to get an extra hour of leeway for the delivery time.

After my rest break in Erie, I drove all through the night—from 12:15 AM to 9:15 AM—with a quick 50-gallon fuel stop in Hazelton, PA, just before dawn. The trip went fairly well despite some rain and fog, and I arrived at the receiver by 9:15 AM, close enough to be called "on-time". After being unloaded, I needed to take another rest break to recharge my driving hours. There were no truckstops in this section of New Jersey, and it took an hour's drive (unpaid, of course) to reach a rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike where I shut her down just after noon.

Trip 12 - Monroe Township, NJ to Brookfield, CT (40,930 lbs of frozen food) - The next trip had a false start: During my rest break, I had received, accepted, and trip-planned an assignment to take a Costco load to Springfield, VA. Later in my rest break, the assignment was suddenly canceled without explanation. As before, all the time I spent planning the trip was wasted. In early evening, I got another Costco assignment to take a reefer (that is, a refrigerated trailer) of frozen food from the warehouse in New Jersey to a Costco store in Brookfield, CT, north of Danbury. There was an extra wrinkle in this assignment: Costco reefers are permanently assigned to the Costco warehouse, so after delivering the load in Connecticut, I would have to return the empty reefer to the warehouse in New Jersey (in theory, with pay). The load had to deliver at 6:00 AM the next morning, so when my rest break concluded in mid-evening, I drove to the warehouse in Monroe Township and picked up the reefer. At nearly 79,000 lbs, the load was heavier than expected, so it would be a slow trip lugging all that frozen food up the hills along the route.

As an aside, there's a convenient way to head up to New England without taking I-95 through New York City, which lets you avoid the dreaded Cross-Bronx Expressway through the city. What you do is make your own "beltway" around Northern NJ by taking I-280W from the turnpike, I-80W for a short distance, I-287N to the New York State Thruway, then you take the Thruway across the Tappan Zee Bridge well north of New York City. Well, I took this route, but unfortunately, on the other side of the bridge, I missed the exit for New England and wound up getting "trapped" on the Thruway heading south towards New York City. I say "trapped" because I didn't know of any good turn-arounds, and it's risky to experiment on unfamiliar roads at night. You might get off at an exit hoping for an easy turn-around, but instead the new road heads off in a new direction. Now you have to find a turn-around on the new road. So you get off at an exit and find yourself heading off in yet another direction, requiring yet another turn-around. In some situations, it can be easier to stay on the original road until you reach someplace you know will work. In my case, I wound up taking the Thruway all the way down to I-95, the dreaded Cross-Bronx, which is what I was trying to avoid in the first place.

Later on in Connecticut, I experienced another navigational problem: the highway I was expecting failed to materialize. I had to stop on the side of the road to sort things out. I discovered that I had accidentally left out an important step when I wrote out the directions for the trip. Two serious navigational errors in one night! What sloppiness! I realized then that I was suffering from the effects of several days of very poor sleep (due to weird schedules and excessive interruptions). You can't cheat Mother Nature indefinitely—at some point, you have to pay the price for lack of sleep. In my case, the price was the frustration and wasted time from making navigational mistakes. For others, the price might be falling asleep at the wheel and causing a fatal wreck. The weird schedules and limited rest breaks do have their risks, you see.

The rest of the trip went OK. I arrived at the store in the wee hours of the morning and waited several hours for unloading. Then I drove the empty reefer back to the warehouse in New Jersey, arriving around 10:00 AM. After dropping the reefer, I bobtailed over to the big Petro truckstop at Turnpike exit 7 and took an eight-hour rest break.

Trip 13 - Charlestown, MA to Monroe Township, NJ (2,400 lbs of fresh produce) - Midway through my rest break, I got my next assignment, which was a variation on the previous assignment. Instead of taking a loaded reefer from the warehouse and bringing an empty reefer back, now I would take an empty reefer from the warehouse, pick up some vegetables, and bring the loaded reefer back to the warehouse in New Jersey. After all, the warehouse doesn't create merchandise out of thin air—everything that gets shipped-out to a Costco store has to first be shipped-in to the warehouse.

Since it was a slow weekend (Saturday afternoon), the assignment had quite a bit of slack time built-in. The pickup in Massachusetts was scheduled for 2:00 PM Sunday afternoon, and the delivery for 5:00 AM the next morning back in New Jersey. I had plenty of time to kill, as usual. After finishing my eight-hour break, in early evening I bobtailed over to the nearby Pilot to get a fill-up, since I was very low on fuel. My last fuel stop was on the rushed trip from Erie, PA to Lakewood, NJ; instead of a fill-up at the Swift terminal, I only got a quick 50 gallons just off the highway. In theory, you're supposed to get all your fuel at Swift terminals, since Swift buys fuel in bulk to get the best price and runs their own "gas stations". However, now and then it's just too inconvenient to go off your route to a Swift terminal. Although the Swift routing computer might tell you to detour to a terminal for a fill-up, I don't think you get paid for the extra mileage.

I went back to the Costco warehouse and hooked an empty reefer, then had time for another eight-hour break, even though I just took a break. To simplify things, I hung out at the Costco warehouse even though it's not as convenient as a truckstop. Around 5:00 AM Sunday morning, I finally headed off to Massachusetts. Charlestown is a close-in suburb of Boston, and I would have to drive right through Boston to get to the pickup location. The directions seemed pretty good, but to be on the safe side, I stopped at a truckstop and bought a local street map of Boston in case I got lost. As I drove the Mass Pike, I also was looking at the rest areas on the other side of the road. On the way back to New Jersey, I was planning to take a rest break at whichever rest area seemed best suited for big trucks.

[Parked at Costa Fruit & Produce]  
Parked at Costa Fruit & Produce in Charlestown, MA.  

When I got to Boston, it got a little hairy for a while. The city is still in the middle of the "Big Dig" construction project, and there were all kinds of road construction lane shifts and detours. Also, the city is very "dense", with lots of roads, exits, signs, traffic, and so forth. I didn't actually get lost, but it was challenging trying to read all the signs quickly enough, and from far away enough, so I could maneuver myself into the correct lane without imposing on other drivers. Despite the extra difficulties, I managed to arrive at the shipper without any problems.

Once I arrived, my palms started to get sweaty. The shipper was in a cramped industrial area, and it didn't look like there was enough room to back a big rig up to the dock. Most of the other trucks were smallish straight trucks or little "food service" combination rigs with day cabs—I had a full sleeper tractor with a 53-foot trailer. Luckily, a truck at one end of the facility pulled out, and I was able to use the extra unused space next to the dock for maneuvering room. I have to say, I was very proud when I "got it in there". Not only was I straight and centered on the dock door, but I didn't take that many pull-ups either. My rig was long enough that the tractor was sticking out into the street, which was a smallish two-lane road. And there was NO maneuvering room on the other side of the road at all—it was filled with parked trucks.

The customer was very pleasant (Costa Fruit & Produce), and I was quickly loaded and ready to go. Compared to my last load which was very heavy, this load was as light as air. In fact it was so light, they didn't even bother listing a weight; I guessed it was 2,400 lbs. It was a "floor load" of pallets with the pallets only one layer deep; each pallet had only a single layer of small produce boxes on it. According to the paperwork, I had scallions, onions, peppers, mushrooms, parsley, basil, dill, rosemary, coleslaw, lettuce, and 1,008 lemons (although I didn't count them!).

I took an eight-hour rest break at the Mass Pike rest area in Framingham, then left just after 10:00 PM to head back to the Costco warehouse in New Jersey. Without any problems, I delivered the load at 4:00 AM the next morning, then hung around the warehouse to wait for my next assignment.

Trip 14 - Monroe Township, NJ to Midlothian, VA (42,559 lbs of general merchandise) - Once you wind up somewhere near the Costco warehouse with nothing to do, it's pretty likely your next load will be a Costco load, and indeed that's what happened. After waiting nearly seven hours (very trying), I finally got dispatched to take a load of general merchandise to a Costco store in Virginia, near Richmond. When you show up at the warehouse to take a full load out, you're supposed to bring an empty trailer with you, otherwise the warehouse would soon run out of trailers. My Costco reefer didn't count as an empty, so the Qualcomm told me to bobtail a few towns over to get an empty trailer from another customer. I have heard of this exercise turning into a wild goose chase, since some areas are chronically short of empty trailers, but I was in fact able to get an empty and bring it back to Costco. Although I actually got a few paid miles to go get the empty, as might be expected it was just "chump change" and didn't really pay for the time and effort.

While waiting for this assignment (and scaring up an empty trailer), I hadn't been able to take a full eight-hour break. The load was only scheduled to be available much later in the evening, though, so I did have time for a full break. Unfortunately, it was one of those mid-day rest breaks that I find to be very unrefreshing. I was able to buy lunch at the on-site Costco cafeteria; the food was good, plentiful, and cheap.

I finally picked up the load around 9:00 PM, then headed down to Virginia. After a brief potty stop in Maryland, I arrived at the Costco store for the scheduled 4:00 AM delivery. Although schedules like this play havoc with my sleep cycles, the one big advantage is that you're searching for the customer in the wee hours of the morning. Traffic is non-existent, so if need be, you can creep along while you peer at street signs in the dark, and there's no one around to blow their horn at you. I guess the delivery went OK. To tell the truth, this is one customer where my usually excellent memory has failed me—I don't remember them. After unloading was complete at 8:00 AM, I headed over to the Swift terminal in Richmond, and I do remember getting slightly lost on my rush-hour trip through Richmond.

Trip 15 - Williamsburg, VA to Marcy, NY (23,219 lbs of general merchandise) - I had a loooong wait for my next assignment—it was fully 12 hours before I left the Richmond terminal. As I have mentioned before, you don't know in advance how long the wait will be. The Qualcomm could beep in five seconds, or in two days. So all you do is wait, wait, wait.

The good part was that the assignment was a Wal-Mart load with a drop-and-hook at each end and a very easy schedule (pickup any time today, deliver any time in the next two days). I left Richmond around 9:00 PM for the easy run to Williamsburg, then had an easy drop-and-hook at the Wal-Mart warehouse. I started heading north, but in the wee hours of the morning in Maryland, I started to get so sleepy that I had to stop for a break. In my brief experience to date, I have found that it's best not to fight extreme sleepiness. The only real cure is to get some sleep. I stopped at the Swift drop yard in Elkridge, MD, for just over three hours, which gave me a very refreshing break and allowed me to resume driving in daylight.

I would need to make another stop somewhere in New York for an eight-hour break to recharge my driving hours, so I made a planned stop at a truckstop in Binghamton which worked out well. I got underway again at midnight and made the drop at the Wal-Mart warehouse near Utica in the wee hours of the morning. I wanted to take a rest break, but since it was the middle of the night, local truckstops might already be full. I knew this might be a problem, so I had listed several potential stops in my trip plan. I wound up passing two full-up truckstops and stayed at a rather poor roadside rest area on the Thruway (no facilities, just an outhouse).

Trip 16 - Fairport, NY to Aberdeen, MD (43,560 lbs of cheese dip) - My next assignment beeped-in late morning, and I got rolling soon afterwards. After stopping at the Swift terminal in Syracuse for fuel, I was to pick up a truckload of Frito-Lay cheese dip from the manufacturer near Rochester and deliver it to the distributor in Aberdeen, MD.

I had already been to the Swift terminal in Syracuse so I was able to find it and fuel up without any problems. The shipper was located in a small town a couple of hours away, and I had to drive the big rig right through the congested middle of town and down a street not really meant for big rigs (although no doubt dozens of rigs used it daily). At the shipper, I joined a line of trucks waiting to check in. After a short wait, I checked in and was told to wait somewhere out of the way until I was assigned a dock number via CB radio. The man was apologetic about where to wait, since the factory and related facilities were crammed on to a too-small lot. I managed to find someplace to park but had to move several times to let other trucks maneuver—space was very tight. Once I got my dock assignment, I couldn't get there directly but had to exit the facility and take the public road over to the other side. Loading was fast and efficient, since they had only a few docks and had lots of trucks to service. On my way back through the small town, I had to make a very sharp right turn in a tight intersection with a traffic light. This was one of the only times that I had to swing wide into the oncoming lane and make the oncoming cars back up. Although this type of difficult turn was stressed in truck driving school, in my limited experience so far, this type of turn is rather rare in real life.

On my way back through New York, I stopped at the Swift terminal in Syracuse for a full rest break (I think the Syracuse terminal is one of the better terminals). Around 8:30 the next morning, I got rolling again, heading across New York and Pennsylvania for Maryland. Unlike some of my other trips through Pennsylvania, this trip had a fairly direct all-interstate route, which made for faster driving but perhaps less interesting scenery. When I got to Aberdeen, it was a little difficult finding the customer since they were in a secluded area well back from the highway. And when I did find the customer (a big Frito-Lay factory), I went to the receiving docks but was unable to find anyone. After wandering through the factory, I finally found someone who told me to deliver the load to the shipping docks. It seems that receiving is for the raw materials (there were huge sacks of corn meal and big tanks presumably of vegetable oil, since the ground was very slippery). Since my load was "finished goods", it would be unloaded at the shipping docks which were close to the area for finished-goods storage. The shipping manager seemed a little perplexed at my arrival, since it wasn't on his schedule. Finally, he told me to do a drop and hook—leave the loaded trailer in the yard and hook an empty—which was fine with me. No free samples of taco chips, though, which was a disappointment.

Well it was now 5:00 PM Friday evening, and I had finished up another 14 days of driving. I got a beep on the Qualcomm that changed my PTA (projected time of availability) to 9:00 PM on Sunday, so I had been allocated my two "days" of home time. (You don't necessarily get two calendar days, just two 24-hour periods.) Unfortunately, I was still well north of Baltimore and had to drive all the way back to the Richmond terminal to drop off the truck and pick up my car. I called the dispatcher to ask about this, and he said "don't you live in Baltimore?", and I had to point out to them, yet again, that I was supposed to get home time out of the Richmond terminal, not out of Baltimore. "Oh well, just drive to Richmond" was the response. I wasn't looking forward to driving through Baltimore and Washington during the peak of Friday evening rush hour, so I had to find someplace to kill some time (again) while the traffic died down. Then I still had to drive the few hours back to Richmond, all on my own time, which was supposed to be my home time. Frankly I was a little pissed that I would wind up with barely a day of quality home time.

I drove south a little and stopped for 15 minutes, trying to figure out what to do—stay in Baltimore, drive to Richmond, or what? Then I drove south a little more and stopped again for a couple of hours and thought about it some more. Finally, I drove the rest of the way to Richmond and arrived around 10:30 PM, tired, dirty, and pissed-off.

That's All Folks, There Ain't No Mo'

By the time I parked the truck at the Richmond terminal, I was seriously thinking about turning in the keys and quitting. I am not someone who makes rash decisions at the spur of the moment. I usually think long and hard before making major decisions, investigating all the angles and considering all the possibilities. But on the other hand, I was becoming increasingly disappointed and discouraged with my truck-driving career. It wasn't turning out the way I had hoped. Although there were some positive aspects, there were a whole lot more negative aspects, many of them seriously negative. This might just be the right time to walk away from Swift and reconsider my options. I decided to sleep on it before making a final decision. Since it was already quite late, I would sleep in the truck at the Richmond terminal rather than driving my car back to Baltimore tonight.

By the next morning, my mind was made up: I would quit. Although it might have been possible to hang in there for a few more weeks, I couldn't see the situation improving any time soon. Eventually, and sooner rather than later, I would have reached the same conclusion: it's time to move on and do something else.

I was in a really weird mood, with many mixed feelings rattling around in my head (mostly disappointment and ruefulness). I was disappointed that I had put so much time and effort and money into this enterprise, yet it was still turning out so poorly. I was somewhat perplexed at how wrong I could have been about long-distance truck driving being a good career for me, even after making a very careful investigation in the beginning and maintaining a mature and positive attitude throughout. I also was chagrined that there were so many truck drivers out there who were doing a job, year after year, that I couldn't even handle for six months. I was even more amazed that there were so many Swift drivers, at least surviving if not prospering, despite the additional negative aspects of driving for Swift. What do they have that I don't have? Patience? (I think I am reasonably patient.) Stamina and grit? (I think I have reasonable amounts of these qualities, too.) Perhaps it just boils down to attitude and expectations. I expected more from truck driving than it wound up giving me, and over a several month period, the unsatisfied expectations eventually corroded my attitude to the point where the job was just not palatable enough to continue. Maybe other people have lower expectations, or are willing to put up with more disappointments and difficulties. Frankly, I just don't know how so many people can tolerate the problems and difficulties of truck driving, for so many years. Having said that, I am still very grateful to the many people out there doing the job. All of America depends on them, every day.

I really hated to leave before six months—that was the minimum time I was hoping to drive for Swift. At six months, you might even have enough time to make a career step to a better driving job, plus you'd get the six-month bonus from Swift ($500). Since I didn't even make it to six months, I couldn't even claim these modest career achievements. I was also quite rueful that now that I was finally getting better at the many complicated tasks a truck driver must perform, in fact getting pretty good at some of the tasks, I was now at the same time coming to the conclusion that I couldn't stand the job and had to get out. So indeed I had very mixed feelings.

Before I cleaned out the truck, I took some time to write a letter to Graham, my driver manager. He was a good driver manager and always treated me fairly, so I thought I owed him some kind of rational explanation. I tend to be much more rational when I can think things out beforehand and write them down. This is the letter that I wrote to Graham:

I regret to inform you that I've decided not to continue my career at Swift and therefore submit my resignation, effective immediately. I had been thinking about this for some time, and had already decided that I wasn't going to last a year, which was my original goal. Then it became a matter of lasting for six months, then a month, then just one more two-week dispatch cycle. Finally, I realized that it was futile to continue, since I could not bear the thought of going out again for another two weeks. I apologize for not providing two weeks notice.

I like the driving part, and think I'm reasonably proficient (for a beginner). I also enjoy the trip planning, and driving around the country. However, there are many aspects of driving OTR for Swift that I don't enjoy, and the net result is that I don't enjoy what I'm doing and can not continue.

The biggest problem is that the job requires a huge amount of time and effort, and much of that time is unpaid. I spend hours and hours of time each week taking care of company business (company paperwork, trip planning, time management, fueling/inspecting truck, drop + hook, waiting for loading + unloading, waiting for dispatch (once I reach my PTA), waiting while the truck is in the shop being repaired, searching for roadworthy empty trailers at Swift terminals, etc.), but I don't get paid for any of this, only for the miles I drive the truck. What is worse, everybody seems to know that OTR drivers don't get paid for their time, so everybody seems to flagrantly waste the driver's time. Before entering trucking, I understood I would spend unpaid time taking care of business, but I didn't realize how much time it would be. It's way too much. I could probably make more money flipping burgers, if I worked the same hours.

The pay is very low, considering the amount of time and effort. This was not too surprising, since beginners can't expect to get paid a lot, but again, I didn't realize how low it would be. It's especially irritating that Swift comes up with strange and inefficient routing, including roads that aren't even truck routes, just to shave off some miles from the trip and cheat me out of pay. They have to realize the routes aren't very practical and nobody is going to run them that way, but they do it nevertheless just to cut my already low pay even lower. On top of that, the company expects me to finance its expenses out of my own pocket. Tolls can be very expensive, and I have shelled out many of my own dollars to pay for company expenses. For example, my out-of-pocket company expenses for the past 14 days is over $460. [all reimbursed by Swift]

As an OTR driver, I find that I have no life whatsoever other than my trucking life (which is very dull—drive, sleep, eat, wait). It just isn't working out to have only two days off after being out 14 days. I have had to abandon all my hobbies and outside interests, and all my friends, too. I knew I would have limited home time, but I didn't realize how unpleasant and discouraging it would be. I need to have a life besides just trucking, and OTR just won't work.

I am finding trucking to be an unhealthy lifestyle. I sit around all day and night and get very little exercise. I find it hard to eat well while on the road, since the choices are very limited. I am also tired most of the time, due to the erratic way our schedules work out. This also contributes to an unhealthy feeling I have. Plus, showers aren't always available, and more than half the time, I have to go around dirty. On top of this, driving OTR on weird schedules has a significant risk—I have had to battle fatigue many times already, and there is a chance of one day falling asleep behind the wheel.

It's clear to me that driving OTR for Swift is not something I can live with, it's just not going to work out. I apologize for any inconvenience I have caused you, and I thank you for all your help.

After I finished writing the letter, I spent a couple of hours unloading my personal possessions from the tractor and loading them into my car. Boxes and bins of stuff, all designed to make my truck driving life easier and more productive. Now my truck driving life was over. Again, more mixed feelings: I actually liked living in the truck, and had adapted to it well. I had all the right knick-knacks and gear, had worked out all of the procedures—too bad I couldn't stand the job! What a waste, what a disappointment.

After emptying the tractor, I put the keys, the letter, and some other important paperwork in an envelope, sealed it, and addressed it to Graham. Then I walked up to the dispatch window and told them I was quitting. They didn't seem particularly interested in my situation, which was understandable—they have their own problems, I'm sure. They were a bit upset that I had quit on the weekend, since they would have to process the information right away by themselves, instead of handing it off to some other clerk. Then I walked out, hopped in my car, and drove back to Baltimore. After a brief career as a long-distance truck driver, I was now an ex-truck driver and officially unemployed.

Some Time Later...

By now, I have had a few months to decompress from my truck driving life and to readapt to "normal" life. After reflecting on the whole experience, I'm glad that I made it happen. I'm glad that I spent all the time, effort, and money to learn to drive a truck, glad that I persevered and found a job, glad that I made it through the company training period, and glad that I soloed and drove my own truck for a while. But just the same, I'm glad that I quit. Long distance truck driving, particularly for Swift, is a pretty brutal enterprise. Although there are people who can survive and even prosper, there are many more people who can't hack it and give up—including me. Nevertheless, we grow as individuals by responding to challenges. And by responding to the many challenges, I'm sure I have grown as an individual and have become a better person. So on the whole, I would say it was worth it.

I'd like to make one more point: the so-called "driver shortage" is not really a shortage of drivers. There are millions of people who could drive a truck, who could do trip planning, who could deal with customers, and who could handle all the other reasonable aspects of trucking. The real shortage is of people who will tolerate excessively long hours, very low pay, endless delays, uncaring companies, complete lack of a home life, unhealthy working conditions, etc., etc., etc. The real shortage is of people who will tolerate the unreasonable aspects of trucking. If I have to be in one category or the other, frankly, I'll join the crowd who can't or won't tolerate the unreasonable aspects of trucking. That's just the way I am, I make no apologies for that attitude.

Ultimately, I might not give up on driving as a profession, even truck driving. Perhaps I will get a local truck driving job, perhaps a driving job for a company that is not a trucking company (like a manufacturer that has its own private fleet). I might even drive something other than a truck, like a shuttle bus or van. I haven't decided yet, but I'm considering several possibilities.

Whatever I do, though, I'm not planning to update this online journal, so this is where we part company. It's been a pleasure sharing my experiences with you, and I wish you the best of luck in whatever you do.

Regards,

John
Baltimore, MD

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

Crunching The Numbers - An Analysis Of My (Short) Driving Career

Just like the other sections of my journal, I'm not going to let you off that easily—I have lots more to say.

One of the good parts of truck driving is that you're forced to keep good records. As a solo driver, I kept a reasonably accurate logbook and kept reasonably good notes about all my load assignments, routes, etc. I have processed all this information and have come up with an analysis of my driving experiences. Naturally, this is very specific to my experiences, your experiences could be very different. Also, the numbers would no doubt be different if I had worked for a longer time (for one thing, I would have run into seasonal variations). On the other hand, I consider my month of solo driving to be very representative of the type of driving a newbie might perform for Swift. So you can take the numbers with a grain of salt, but I thought they would be interesting to ponder.

Before I get to the numbers, let me explain a few technical details about this analysis. I came up with several categories and subcategories of time, to try to accurately keep track of what I was doing. I arranged the categories like this (note the nested structure):

  1. Road time - the time I spent "on the road", with the following subcategories:
    1. Company time - the time I spent performing official company business, with the following subcategories:
      1. Driving - the time I spent driving.
      2. Working - the time I spent doing other company business (except waiting), as follows:
        1. Miscellaneous - pre-trip inspection, drop/hook, maneuver, fuel, scale-out, communicate (customer or Swift), hand load/unload, look for good empty trailer.
        2. Trip-planning and company paperwork - self-explanatory.
      3. Waiting - the time I spent waiting, when required by company business, and when I couldn't do other things:
        1. Waiting for dispatch - ready to roll but nowhere to go.
        2. Waiting for loading/unloading - customer related.
        3. Killing time - similar to above, but schedule related, and doesn't occur at customer site.
        4. Waiting for the shop - waiting for maintenance or repairs to be completed.
        5. Waiting, miscellaneous - anything not in the above categories.
    2. My time - the time I spent not performing business activities, with the following subcategories:
      1. Off-duty - the time I was truly off-duty and free to do whatever I wanted.
      2. Sleeper - the time that I spent, by choice, sleeping or trying to sleep.
  2. Home time - "official" home time that was granted by the company.

I also kept track of the pay that I earned during the period (before taxes/deductions), using the following categories:

  1. Mileage pay, based on 26 cents per mile.
  2. Other pay, such as:
    1. Stop pay - the extra pay you get for multi-stop trips.
    2. Loading/unloading - the extra pay you get for hand loading or unloading.
    3. Breakdown pay - the extra pay you get if the truck breaks down but you're otherwise ready for dispatch.
    4. Layover pay - the extra pay you get if you're ready for dispatch but the company has no work for you.
  3. Reimbursements - this is NOT part of my pay, it's all MY money that I had to shell out for company expenses. I show it in the analysis because it's a huge amount of cash.

Since the duration I analyzed was an odd length of time, I also computed weekly, monthly, and yearly values as required for both time and pay values by extrapolating the data. I tried to do this in a reasonable and realistic way. I assumed an average month was 30.4 days.

Duration of analyzed time period: 12:00 PM 4/15/03 through 8:00 PM 5/18/03, 33.33 days or 800.0 hours.

Number of load assignments: 16 (weekly = 3.4, monthly = 14.6, yearly = 175)

Weight of all loads: 433,681 lbs (weekly = 91,082 lbs, monthly = 395,557 lbs, yearly = 4,749,282 lbs)

Here is a breakdown of how I spent my time during the analyzed period, with extrapolated estimates for monthly and yearly. The totals might not add to 100% due to rounding. "Days" means full 24-hour days.

  1. Road time = 700.0 hrs, 88% of the total (monthly = 26.6 days, yearly = 319.4 days)
    1. Company time = 376.25 hrs, 47% of the total (monthly = 14.3 days, yearly = 171.7 days)
      1. Driving = 186.5 hrs, 23% of the total (monthly = 7.1 days, yearly = 85.1 days)
      2. Working = 72.25 hrs, 9% of the total (monthly = 2.7 days, yearly = 33.0 days)
        1. Miscellaneous = 49.0 hrs, 6% of the total
        2. Trip-planning and paperwork = 23.25 hrs, 3% of the total
      3. Waiting = 117.5 hrs, 15% of the total (monthly = 4.5 days, yearly = 53.6 days)
        1. Waiting for dispatch = 31.0 hrs, 4% of the total
        2. Waiting for loading/unloading = 27.5 hrs, 3% of the total
        3. Killing time = 31.5 hrs, 4% of the total
        4. Waiting for the shop = 24.5 hrs, 3% of the total
        5. Waiting, miscellaneous = 3.0 hrs, 0% of the total
    2. My time = 323.75 hrs, 40% of the total (monthly = 12.3 days, yearly = 147.7 days)
      1. Off-duty = 104.5 hrs, 13% of the total (monthly = 4.0 days, yearly = 47.7 days)
      2. Sleeper = 219.25 hrs, 27% of the total (monthly = 8.3 days, yearly = 100.0 days)
  2. Home time = 100.0 hrs, 12% of the total (monthly = 3.8 days, yearly = 45.6 days)

The hourly breakdown of my average day on the road is 6.4 driving, 2.5 working, 4.0 waiting, 3.6 off-duty, 7.5 sleeping.

Considering all the time I was working on company business (category 1.1), I was only paid about 50% of the time (for driving). This doesn't include a small amount of paid time for layover, breakdown, and hand unloading.

While on the road, I worked an average of 12.9 hours a day, or 90.3 hours a week. Including home time, I worked an average of 11.3 hours a day, or 79.0 hours a week.

Here is a breakdown of my pay during the analyzed period, with extrapolated estimates for monthly/yearly:

  1. Mileage pay = $2,136.16, 89% of the total (weekly = $448.64, monthly = $1,948.37, yearly = $23,393.29)
  2. Other pay = $270.00, 11% of the total (weekly = $56.71, monthly = $246.26, yearly = $2,956.80)
    1. Stop pay = $50.00
    2. Loading/unloading pay = $60.00
    3. Breakdown pay = $120.00
    4. Layover pay = $40.00
  3. Reimbursements = $793.57 (weekly = $166.67, monthly = $723.81, yearly = $8,690.46) (this is NOT pay!)

Total pay (1 + 2) = $2,406.16 (weekly = $505.34, monthly = $2,194.63, yearly = $26,350.09)

Based on the total number of hours I worked (category 1.1, company time), my average hourly wage was $6.40.

My out-of-pocket cash business expenses were about 33% of my gross pay. This is a little misleading, though, since I didn't have to wait a full year to get reimbursed. However, due to the time it takes to process the paperwork, I estimate that I gave Swift a continuous interest-free loan of several hundred dollars.

I also kept track of the miles I actually drove the truck to compare it with the "paid miles", which is how the company figured the mileage.

  1. Actual miles = 9,415 (daily = 282, weekly = 1,977, monthly = 8,587, yearly = 103,105)
  2. Paid miles = 8,216 (daily = 247, weekly = 1,726, monthly = 7,494, yearly = 89,974)

The actual miles are 15% greater than the paid miles. If I actually got paid for all the miles, my pay would be greater by $65.26 weekly, $284.18 monthly, $3,414.06 yearly (at 26 cents per mile). This represents six to seven weeks of "free" driving over the course of a year.

The average number of miles per load assignment was 588.

Based on the total number of hours I drove (category 1.1.1), my average speed was 50.5 mph.

Comments and Observations

With my average day having 4.0 hours of waiting and only 6.4 hours of driving, it would be a BIG help if the waiting time could be reduced. That would get my average driving hours up and boost the amount of paid miles. It would also be nice to have fewer runs, but longer runs. By the way, my average speed of about 50 mph is just what they told us in truck-driving school to use as a good figure for trip-planning.

The estimated yearly pay of $26K sounds pretty good for a rank beginner, but considering how many hours I worked and the difficulty of the job, it's a pretty poor hourly wage, only $6.40. And of all the hours I worked, only about half of them were actually driving a truck and generating paid mileage. The other half was slave labor—unpaid. As I suspected, I worked a huge number of hours per week (more than 90 while on the road), so truck drivers don't have time for an outside life. You're a truck driver and that's it—no family, no hobbies, nothing else.

The amount of sleep is somewhat deceptive. At an average of 7.5 hours a day, it sounds like enough, but consider several other factors. Due to weird schedules, sleep time might be in the daytime, when it is not very refreshing. Also, the sleep time might be interrupted multiple times. Or there might be several days with much less sleep, followed by one day with a huge amount. In my opinion, the level of fatigue due to lack of quality sleep is much worse than the sleep figures seem to indicate.

One sore point is the big difference between actual and paid mileage. Over the course of a year, it's like you drive six weeks for free. And the mileage difference is not accidental; the Swift routing computer deliberately plays tricks to shave miles off your pay. In this age of high technology, there's no reason why the routing computer couldn't come up with efficient routes and very accurate door-to-door mileage figures. After all, that's exactly what I wound up doing for myself: I used the DeLorme Street Atlas program on my laptop to do excellent door-to-door routing with precise mileage figures.

Another sore point is having to finance the company's business by paying for business expenses with cash out of my pocket, and then having to wait for reimbursements (and hope I got them). Due to the time to process reimbursements, Swift got free use of several hundred dollars of my hard-earned money. Multiply that by thousands of other drivers, and Swift is getting a huge free loan. To me, it seems completely unreasonable for a driver to have to raid ATMs and shell out hundreds of dollars in a week. That's MY money, it's NOT Swift's money and they have no right whatsoever to use it! If they need a loan so bad, let them apply for a bank loan, just like everybody else!

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