29 September 2010

East to West

It’s early September, and I’m in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I’m waiting in the truck lot of a metal fabrication plant, where I’ve just delivered a load of sheet from a factory in Ohio. It’s the end of summer up here. The autumn flowers have been roaring for two weeks now, mostly goldenrod, although a few others hanging on tell me that the autumn honey flow will be a good one in these parts. Goldenrod makes a dark honey that is interesting to me because in the evening when the bees are fanning to evaporate the moisture, the bee yard smells like something died in it. Whatever the bees are busily evaporating out soon leaves, though, and the honey becomes thick, rich, and dark, but no longer smells bad. But that’s part of a different world at the moment.

My QualComm unit beeps at me, my satellite connection to Dawn, my dispatcher, far away.


SURE, I type back into the little keyboard. ANYTIME

After a bit Dawn sends me the dispatch, and then I’m off, headed east across Wisconsin, first a few hundred miles to pick up my trailer of stainless steel tubing and elbows, and then to turn around to take it west to San Diego. A good trip—2300 miles, and not a lot of extra time wasted at either end. I do the math, and see that the trip is 38 hours, and that I have 39 legal working hours available before delivery. A very, very tight schedule—I’ll have to drive my butt off to keep from going into violation at the end.

I meet another driver at a truck stop in the rain in mid-state, and swap my broken-down curtainside for his empty 102-inch flat. He will haul it south to Chicago for repairs, and I keep on going east to Green Bay. I make the mistake of telling Dawn about a broken airline check valve on my old tractor. I’d planned just to pick up a new one next time I drive by a terminal.


Bad news. The Kaukauna terminal will actually add 100 miles and three hours to the trip, I calculate. I’ll really have to hustle to get to San Diego legally, now, as my destination is suddenly 100 miles farther off. I swing by the terminal, snatch up the valve from the mechanics, then head south an hour to the shipper.

“We haven’t finished loading your trailer. Would you like to wait in the break room?”

Off the clock, I stand in the entrance foyer and chat with another driver. He has a similar load, but is headed for Northern California. We make small talk, discussing issues of importance to professional drivers—Federal regulations, different routes, customers to avoid. He won’t go to Canada.

“Why not? I’ve never had any trouble.”

He has, apparently. For reasons I can’t figure out, I never have a problem taking a tractor trailer through customs. Other drivers tell me horror stories of being detained for hours, searched, interrogated about their past, where they’ve been and where they’re going. Me, never. Maybe the plain Quaker clothing throws the border guards off-script. All I know is that they’re always polite, always friendly, and always let me through. Even when I do something stupid, like drive the wrong way through the X-ray lane.

Eventually the pipe loaders are done, and I drop my empty, hook to the loaded trailer, get my paper, and pull out on the road. I’m carrying 44 pieces of stainless steel sewage tubing, elbows, and reducers, beautifully welded and precisely cut to blueprint, all destined to fit together like a puzzle at a jobsite half a continent away. It’s a lightweight load. And I still have time for a few hundred miles before I stop for the night somewhere in Iowa. So I sit back, put my foot to the floor, and watch the scenery fly past my window as I head west-southwest. My seat in the tractor cab is comfortable, a good perch from which to inspect the passing world.

It’s late in the year, and the agriculture tells the story. The corn is mostly dry or drying, brown ears on brown stalks, hidden behind the brown leaves. The miles and miles of soybeans are finishing up as well, turning yellow in broad patches among the green as they cycle out their season. As I pass by, I wonder why the beans all change color in huge patches, at different times in the same fields, like the groves of aspen in the Rockies that all turn yellow together at different times in the same woods. Microclimate, I suppose, vagaries in soil composition, fertilizer glitches, or perhaps drainage. Occasional late plantings still have a week or two to go, but for the most part the farming here is settling down to the season of spending money, instead of making it. As a beekeeper in California, September for me was always a busy time of gathering up the beehives and hauling them across the coastal mountains to the wintering grounds along the Pacific Ocean, then hitting them with medication and pouring in the feed, getting them fat and happy for the brief winter. September was the season of spending money there as well, seeing as how honey was mostly a waste product, often not worth the cost of removing it from the hives.

Here in Iowa, the bees will be mostly done as well. As I stop along the road to check my straps, the grasshoppers rattle through the Bird’s-Foot Trefoil at my feet, the last of the summer flowers, little yellow blossoms carpeting the ground under the bunched and brown seed heads of the Queen Ann’s Lace, which itself has finished up a week earlier. As I climb back into the truck, a flock of red-winged blackbirds wings overhead, also bunched, and gathering for their flight south. Nature here is winding the clock, in preparation for dormancy. I pull into a small Iowa town for the night, find a dirt lot over by the propane distributor, and park in the back. I don’t have any fuel credits for any company nearby, so I can’t trade them in for a shower. I go immediately to sleep instead.

The next day I cross into Nebraska at sunrise. I begin to climb, slowly but noticeably. The boundary between the low plains and the high plains is delineated by rainfall, and although no rain is in sight among the two-toned gray stratus clouds, the change in moisture is betrayed by the vegetation that depends on it. The lush herbaceous ground flora and hardwoods that characterize the eastern woodlands and the river bottoms of the low prairies gradually give way to dried bunch grasses and scattered cottonwoods, with occasional pines and junipers. Sunflowers appear, first a few, and then an exploding miniature forest that turns in unison to gaze into the rising sun at my back as I power up the east-facing incline, mile after mile. Another key to the rainfall is the change in agriculture. The corn remains, still late in the season, but the bean fields become rarer and rarer, and are replaced by sorghum and beef ranches. Dry-land farms give way to irrigation, the giant center-pivot rain machines slowly crawling in circles around and around the fields, a gentle spray of water dropping over the crop every thirty feet or so, delivering the moisture that doesn’t fall from the sky. Along the roadside, the last of the goldenrod flickers and goes out, as the sunflowers come into their own.

A pair of great blue herons slowly rise from a slough off to the north and head into my path. They spot me at the last moment and veer up and away, as I pass beneath them. In the mirror I watch them settle back down into the sunflowers, silhouetted against the sun.

I’m still short on hours, and I stop only when I have to for the Federally-mandated load checks every 150 miles. As I pull into Ogallala at the end of the day, I have 10 minutes left on my legal 11 hours, and 643 miles on the clock. I’m exhausted, but I have only 10 hours off-duty before I start again, so I heat up a can of beans for dinner. No credits for a shower here either, as it’s a chain that I rarely fuel at. I scrub off with a handful of baby-wipes and crawl into the bunk behind the seat.

The next days follow the same pattern, hour after hour, mile after mile. From Nebraska, I climb the plains that front the Continental Divide, the stony spine that separates the Pacific drainage from the Gulf of Mexico. The Rockies will be the major climb on this trip. As I enter Denver, a sign reminds me: SEPT THRU MAY-TRUCKS MUST CARRY SNOW CHAINS.

Oops. Everybody forgot this, including me. I acknowledge that I’m a criminal, and peer up at the sky. No sign of snow, and I’ll be through the tunnel and over the top before lunch. I make a mental note not to come back this way without the legal equipment, and grind up to the 11,000 foot pass and to the tunnel, then descend from the top of the Rockies into the long narrow canyon that spins me through the descending mountains like a leaf in a rain gutter. I pass through narrow gorge after narrow gorge, the rocky walls of sands and volcanics giving me a view of a new cross-section of the mountain’s roots at every turn of the road. Finally the highway spits me out into the badlands, and the canyons disappear behind me like slamming a screen door. I enter the Great Basin.

The Great Basin is high elevation desert—hot and dry in the summer, cold and dry in the winter. It yields no water to the oceans—a closed system, all rivers and streams that enter eventually evaporate into the sky. Playas and sands, brush, cattle, and hardrock mines. The Great Basin is a far different place from the Wisconsin dairy land that began this trip. I stop and pull into dirt lot at a truck stop, 551 miles on the clock for the day.

“You going to spend the night here?” the driver I met back in Green Bay asks. “There’s a better place down the road a mile.”

With identical loads, identical trucks, and identical regulations, likely as not we’ll meet again at dusk in another state or two. But I have no reason to look for a better place to sleep. Everything I need is already in the truck. I’m a vegetarian and bring all my food with me, so I don’t look for restaurants, and all I need is an occasional shower. But somebody stole my fuel cards the week before, so I’m starting from scratch accumulating points again with my new ones. Until I get a few hundred more gallons through the 450-HP Mercedes Benz that powers my home, I’ll be a little grimy. More baby wipes, and it’s time for bed.

I spend the next morningpassing through the uplands above the Mojave Desert. I’ve spent a lot of time in various deserts, and they always seem so much more alive to me than woodlands and farmland. People from wet places tend to think of a desert as a dead thing, but they don’t see them as they really are. What looks like a desolate wasteland changes when the stars come out, and a bustling community appears, where the rodents dig themselves out of their burrows and scatter across the stones, the predators patrol their territory, and the reptiles and arthropods all begin their own busy nighttime activities. I’ve set transects of live traps through the woods and meadows of the central plains, and ten catches out of one hundred traps is considered pretty good. In the desert, 100 catches out of 100 traps is routine before midnight, and you can empty the traps and catch another 100 before sunrise. Kangaroo rats, pocket mice, wood rats, white-footed mice, coyotes, kit foxes, gray foxes, porcupines, not to mention bat species by the dozen, all people the desert at night, as do the reptiles, birds, and invertebrates. A wonderful place, but this trip is all business, with no time for time exploring for tracks and skeletons in the scrub at my inspection stops.

Las Vegas is an amazement to me. I haven’t seen it in years, and no longer recognize it. The Vegas that I knew was a small town in the shadows of the alluvial fans, clear desert air and dry scrubland. The city itself was tiny, with a little brightly-lit strip of astonishment in the middle where all the casinos were built. You entered on the two-lane, bought breakfast at a casino, and were out of town in a mile or so. Today, Las Vegas is a metropolis, with a skyline, busy freeways, housing developments, a strange and bloated caricature of its former self. The old one has passed on, taking its own stage sets and actors off into retirement. Vegas is a new act today, and will be remembered equally clearly, but very differently by the people that pass by in another generation or two.

I realize that I have made a mistake when I discover that today is Labor Day, and thousands of drivers will be heading south on my road, back to los Angeles and San Diego, ready to go back to work Tuesday morning, fresh from a weekend of Vegas debauchery. Ahead of me the line of traffic slows to a stop, bumper to bumper, closed up and crawling for as far ahead as I can see, miles after mile, up and over the next pass. As a Quaker, I don’t pay much attention to holidays, and sometimes get caught as a result. Today is one such day.

The CB crackles. “Hey, northbound. How much more of this is there?” Another driver trapped like me, one of hundreds in this mess.

“What you see is what you get, all the way back to Barstow, and then some.”

Barstow was to be my stop for the night, where I could finally trade my fuel credits for a shower. But I have two legal hours to make the fifty miles, and at ten miles an hour I know I won’t make it. At the last moment I slip off into a small town for the night and find an empty lot off to the side of a restaurant. I carefully pull the rig into line with the afternoon sun so that the cab is shaded and the 107-degree heat won’t bake me into a tortilla. As I fill out my log for the day, the endless stream of traffic passes me by on the highway, car after car after car, eventually sparkling into a line o fheadlights and tailights in the dusk, reaching up into the mountains for twenty miles each way, far into the night.

At sunrise the next morning I reach my destination—a construction site on the Mexican border, so close to Tijuana that I can watch the traffic. As the day clears, the foreman guides me into position under the tower crane he will use to lift the tubing off my truck. I hurry to unstrap the load and stow the equipment. Out of the 39 hours to work I had when I started, I have only one left, and I still have to find a place to park the truck after I’m done. I’ve been burning my driving hours 10 to 11 per day since I started, and I won’t have any more legal hours to drive after I shut down for another 34 hours.

With the equipment stowed, I’m off the clock, and can relax for a while. As the workers carefully sling the heavy tubing from the trailer, I look over the border into Tijuana. It’s a busy morning over there, rush hour in the metropolis, the Mexican sister city to San Diego. Between me and the Avenida Internacionale, there is a chain-link fence, a concrete wall, and then another fence of steel mesh. Between the two fences is the dirt road patrolled by La Migra, the American Border Patrol that keeps the Mexicans out of the U.S., or at least tries to. Above the busy Avenida is a steep hill covered in a patchwork of stuccoed villas and small storefronts, power lines, and fan palms. As I stand watching, shots are fired in one of the city streets, two sharp cracks from a handgun, then silence. The traffic continues unmoved, but after a few minutes two patrol cars arrive at the hill top, blue lights cycling, and work their way down into the neighborhood and out of sight.

I turn to one of the workers standing next to me, watching as the tower crane operator high above us carefully swings the tubing off the truck and into the dust alongside the construction, guided by a man holding a rope attached to one end.

“You guys hear a lot of gunfire here?” I ask.

“All the time,” he says, not turning from the pipe slowly passing us by overhead. “It’s a different world over there.”

I turn back to Tijuana, and the traffic continues to rumble on, just another busy day on the frontier with El Norte.

Eventually the truck is empty, the papers signed, and I’m released.

“We’ll help you back out,” the foreman offers.

“Nah, that’s okay,” I reply, looking in the mirror. “If you’ll let me roll into that dirt straight back there, I can just kiss that surveyor’s stake with the tires and get out by myself.”

With only 45 minutes left, the last thing I need is someone trying to help me. In truck driving, it’s always nice to have help, but if the helpers don’t know what you really need, they mostly just get in the way. By myself I can wiggle my way out backwards through the forklifts, pickups, and sand piles in a minute or two. If someone helps me, it might take half-an-hour, and I don’t have that to spare.

My truck stop guide claims that there’s a fuel station with parking eight miles away. Emma, my GPS, agrees, so I program her to guide me there and head back across the Tijuana River, east paralleling the border. As she calmly intones my directions, I inspect the roadside for alternative places to spend the next two days, should my truck stop turn out to be closed, full, or non-existent. If I run out of time before I stop, I’m a criminal. Should I be involved in an accident, it will legally be my fault, no matter what the circumstances. If anybody dies, for any reason, I can be charged with vehicular homicide. I take hours-of-service regulations very seriously, and last-minute parking is always stressful for me.

A mile ahead, I spot the sign for my truck stop. Thank goodness. As I pull in, I scan the lines of idling big rigs for the best empty spot, one facing the shaded north that I can approach from the right to make backing in easy. I also want one facing uphill, if that’s an issue, because if it faces downhill I’ll be rolling out of bed all night. And if possible, I don’t want to be next to an idling reefer or a truck from back east or the north, because they’ll run their engines all night to keep their air conditioners going. Eventually I find an acceptable spot, pull in and shut it down.

I take out my log book and calculate my hours. 2337 miles, not my longest trip, but certainly the fastest within recent memory. I’m bushed, with a string of 600-plus mile days behind me, up and over the mountains and through the long winding canyons. Autumn in the central plains to the dry late summer of the deserts. A pretty trip, but one that required constant and careful attention, hour after hour. But I’m out of time now, so there’s nothing to do now except take a breather and go to bed.

But first, a shower.


Heather said...

Your posts take me into a world I would otherwise never know anything about, Kevin - thank you. You write beautifully!

Gerry Snape said...

Kevin I have just been taken to another world! It's a world that I could never imagine being from Ireland and living in the north of England. We have a road locally called M6 and trucks from all over the continent of Europe travel this way. But this is quite something that you have done. I liked the bit about being trusted because you wear plain clothes. I follow two women who wear plain clothes through their blogs. One in Australia and one in the south of Wngland....but no men!

Gil S said...

I just have to thank you for sharing your life and your country so vividly. The sheer scale of America is something we Brits seldom appreciate!

kevin roberts said...

Heather, there's lots of different worlds. I only get to see a few of them myself. I don't get to see yours, for instance. But there's a couple more I'm thinking about describing. We'll see.

Hi Gerry--

You know, Ireland is one place I've never been and always wanted to see. The plain clothes always amuse me. Total strangers come up to talk about God, as if I were some sort of guru.

Gil, from that morning in San Diego I went back into the Mojave to a military base, and carried three trailers across the country all the way to the Atlantic in North Carolina.

Tonight I'm back in the Mojave again, to pick up minerals in a place so isolated the company GPS computer routed me 300 extra miles to avoid one thirty-mile stretch of "bad road." I made them route me back, so I'll find out tomorrow why the road is officially "discouraged." From there it's 2700 miles to West Virginia and then home.

It's a big place, that's for sure. I drive the distance between Land's End and John o' Groats every day, if the conditions are right.

Thanks for visiting. There's more in my head from that trip.

kevin roberts said...
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kevin roberts said...
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kevin roberts said...

maybe i should write something about how pressing enter once makes a comment appear four times