The International Writers Magazine: USA Travel
Wheels Across the USA
eighteen wheel behemoths that travel the highways of America transporting
everything from baby food to nuclear reactors have always held
a special fascination for me. I have wanted to go for a trip in
one of these trucks across the country, and experience what I
believed was a romantic way of life. It was just a dream, but
in one of those rare instances, one that came true.
I practice law in
a small New England town, handling everything from DUI (Driving Under
the Influence) to Incorporation Papers. A local long haul trucker came
to see me about a DUI charge. He told me that if he lost the case he
would have his truckers license suspended, effectively putting
him out of business. To make a long story short I won the case using
the Tunafish Defense, and as we were enjoying a beer at the VFW, he
asked me about my fee. It is then that the idea took form.
Id like to take a cross country trip in your truck
that would be my fee. He looked at me as if I had two heads. After
mulling it over a few minutes, and finishing his beer he finally said,
OK. I dont have anything now, but the next trip, youre
on. You sure you know what youre doing?
Absolutely not, thats why I want to go and find out
Three weeks later, on a chilly and drizzly October night I got a call,
Can you be ready in one hour? Im leaving for Los Angeles.
It took me thirty seconds to decide. I packed a gym bag, kissed my wife,
my two-year-old son, and was out the door. One hour later Buzz Mitchell
and I were on the road to a warehouse in Maine to pick up a load of
paper and plastic products-plates, knives, spoons, and napkins.
As we drove he laid out the trip. We would head across the northern
tier of states to Chicago and on to our first stop, Denver, Colorado.
Our next stop before L.A. was to be Phoenix, Arizona.
Now the lifeblood of the independent trucker is a full trailer. Empty,
there was no money. As things stood, he didnt have a return load.
He said, We might be stuck in L.A. until I get a cargo.
He did not know how long that could be. I told him I only had ten days
so I might have to fly back if it looked like wed be there longer.
We got loaded, exactly at midnight, we left the terminal, and I began
my own personal log of the trip.
The trucking industry owes its existence to President Eisenhower, Based
on his wartime experience of moving vast numbers of men and their supplies
he had becoming painfully aware that the highway system of the United
States was woefully inadequate. Hence, the inception of the Interstate
Highway System, which after 40 years of fits and stops finally saw its
completion in 1996. It roughly consists of 42,000 miles of four-lane
roadway that crisscrosses the nation. It is the best highway system
the world has ever known. Like the roads built by the Romans it will
probably long remain after we are gone. Maintained in excellent condition,
it is owned by the trucking industry, and the big rig, the
The eighteen-wheel combine consists of a tractor and a trailer. Loaded
a truck can weight up to forty tons. The overall length is about sixty
feet, and with the allowance now of double rigs youre looking
at some that can exceed one hundred feet in length. Many trucks, like
Buzz's, are also refrigerated. Truck drivers either work for a trucking
company directly or are independents, owning their own tractors. In
either case, they are paid by the load. The more loads you haul the
more money you make. The trucking industry lives by the old adage: Time
is money. The firm that contracts the services of the trucker
to transport the goods usually owns the trailers. Various clearinghouses
throughout the country match up truckers with loads, for a fee. The
particular company Buzz did most of his driving for operated out of
Oklahoma. They took care of assuring the driver sufficient funds (truckers
are always short of money) to make the trip, making out the routing,
and final payment after deducting their fees. When a trucker left a
terminal, he knew what and where his first few days would be. After
that, he was at the mercy of the clearinghouse. The quicker he finishes
a run, the sooner he gets his next load: Run, rabbit, run.
Buzzs truck was about ten years old and nearing the end of its
useful life. It was a sleeper unit, which meant that it had a bunk in
back and over the drivers compartment. Not roomy and not equipped
like the newer units with refrigerators, TV, stereo, DVD, et cetera.
I looked a little askance at what might (as it turned out was) to be
my home for the next week or so.
Within fifteen minutes on the road, I knew that it was going to be a
good trip for when Buzz had nothing to say silence reigned. He did not
talk just to fill the void. I am cut from the same cloth. There were
times during the trip that two hours or so could pass with out an exchange
of words, each of us wrapped in our own thoughts, not feeling it necessary
to fill the air with chatter.
We left Massachusetts and after Albany picked up the New York State
Thruway across the wide expanse of the state to Buffalo. About five
miles down the road Buzz pulled over and said, You drive.
I was stunned. "Me take control of a seventy-foot long, 30-ton
truck? Youre joking?
Nope, if you can drive, we can make some damn good time.
No time like now to find out if you can handle it. Why wait? Shit, Its
easy, he said as he showed me the gear positions. Remember
to double clutch at every gear change. It will be awhile but youll
learn to listen to the sound of the engine, that will tell you when
its time to change gears. I practiced shifting gears in the silent
There is one thing you must always be aware of; youve got
seventy feet of truck behind you so when you pass another truck or car
you must allow for the length of the rig.
I told him it would be quite awhile before I started passing other vehicles.
He ignored me.
Your rear view mirrors are as important as the road ahead.
If you remember that, youll be OK. Lets get this show on
the road, he said as he sat back in the passenger seat as I took
the wheel. I had thought I might ask when we were out in the wilds of
Wyoming if I could drive a little. I had never thought hed put
me behind the wheel now. To say I was nervous is a gross understatement
I stalled it twice getting it off the shoulder onto the highway. Thank
heaven it was 3:00 a.m. and traffic was non-existent. Buzz was watching
me like a hawk; never raising his voice, he calmly guided my maiden
voyage: Dont use so much gas. Keep your eye on the rearview
mirrors. Dont ride the white line.
My palms were sweating.
Relax, Relax. Drive out to the end of your high beams. Remember
it will take you 550 feet to stop this thing at fifty miles an hour,
so you must make allowance for that. Youre not checking your rearview
mirrors enough. He had seen that there were two trucks right on
my tail, ready to pass. I had not seen them.
As the trucks passed they looked at who was driving. My rank greenness
must have stood out like a sore thumb. I had been driving only twenty
minutes and felt cocky as hell. When the trucks had passed and gone
some distance I flashed my lights, the signal that means it was
all right to return to the right lane. Hundreds of times I had seen
truckers do that for me, now I was the one giving the high sign.
Buzz interrupted my reverie of driving prowess, Slow down cowboy.
I looked at the speedometer; I was doing 65. Sheepishly I lifted my
foot a little.
Sorry, was all I could say.
We get stopped, and well have to do some fast talking.
I never was stopped, Buzz did.
Make sure you stay that far away from traffic in front of
you. Youll see assholes riding right up on your rear, both trucks
and cars. Put on your flashers to back them off.
Mind if we listen to a little music? I said. Buzz
pushed in a tape of Johnny Cash in response.
Mind if we listen to something a little different? Give me that
tape case on the floor.
I found what I wanted, ejected his tape, and started mine. In a few
moments, the first movement of Mozarts Twenty-first Symphony filled
What in hell is that? Buzz asked.
Mozart. Was my reply. He made a face.
Listen for a little. I said
He heard it all the way through and then to my surprise asked if I had
more. That wasnt bad, sort of a change of pace. Sort of
like that Beethoven guy, right? I put on a tape of Mozarts
horn concertos. It was five oclock in the morning, the faintest
glimmer of the sunrise reflected in the rearview mirrors of a truck
loaded with paper plates speeding across the face of America with Mozart
blaring from quadraphonic speakers. It was surreal.
Our first major stop was in Denver, Colorado. I was in for a rude awakening.
Buzz actually expected me to work! Help the guy unload, and tick
it off this list. He said handing me a clipboard with a bill of
lading. He headed off to get some coffee. He later told me that he had
told the hands at the loading platform and the other drivers around
the coffee machine that I was indeed a lawyer, and needed a job. I had
wondered why a lot of people had wandered up, peered in the truck, and
then walked away shaking their heads. Despite my protests Buzz told
the story at every stop we made.
He called the clearing office and they told him that part of the load
was now going to Scottsdale in Arizona. This toney town, a little east
of Phoenix, is sort of one big Rodeo Drive of Hollywood fame. Id
hoped that we were going to go through Las Vegas. Buzz said we had to
beat it for LA. He promised a stop in Reno on the return trip.
I drove the rig into LA right up to the gate of a giant warehouse complex.
Buzz unhooked the trailer at a platform and said wed be here for
a few days till they located a load for him to take back. Where we were,
I had no idea. Buzz asked me to disappear for a few hours; he had gotten
himself some female companionship. I asked for a map of LA. I had no
idea where we were. I had some vague idea about visiting my sister who
lived in the suburbs. He said if I was going to wander off just be sure
to be back in 24 hours. I was to meet him at the warehouse complex,
Never got to my sisters place, Saw a Poker Club and spent the
next 16 hours playing. Won a little, had an excellent steak, but I was
tired and lost. In the intervening hours, I had forgotten the name of
the warehouse, but did remember the bus I took. It was four in the morning;
I waited until five for a bus and eventually made my way back to the
rendezvous. Buzz was busy hooking up the reefer unit cooling down the
trailer for the load of grapes we were to pick up outside of Sacramento.
It was a through run to Toronto, no stops. I told Buzz of my poker exploits
and that I was going to sleep in the bunk in the cab. He said wed
leave in about an hour.
I took off my shoes, put on a pair of running shorts, and lay down for
a nap. Sometime later, I awoke and needed to relieve the pressure on
my bladder. I got out of the bunk not bothering to put on my shoes or
a t-shirt, just a guy in a pair of running shorts relieving himself
on one of the eighteen wheels of a truck. . . A truck that started moving!
Before I could say a single word the truck was headed for the gate,
leaving me standing, barefooted, pissing on the ground. Finding my voice,
I yelled as I started to run after the truck. It left the gate heading
straight down the street. A moment later the truck came to a screeching
halt. I got up to the cab and there was Buzz, bent over the wheel in
hysterics. When he caught his breath, and I caught mine he said he thought
I was sound asleep in the bunk, never thinking I had gotten out. All
I could think of was me in a pair of running shorts, no identity, and
no money, stranded in Los Angeles. It was funny, and would be remembered
as such but at the moment the humor escaped me.
It was a few miles east of Sacramento, with our load of grapes in the
refrigerated trailer and a box between us in the cab, that Buzz got
stopped by a County Mounty (State Police) for speeding.
It was the first and only time during our six thousand mile odyssey.
A 150.00-dollar fine, a lot of paperwork, and a nerve-wracking scrutiny
of his driving log followed. I had spent many hours bringing it up to
date and preparing a law-abiding record that bore little relationship
It passed muster.
Winter comes early to the northern tier of the United States; the sky
was a dull overcast gray, occasionally spitting icy rain, the cold air
when we ventured from the cab was bone chilling. Buzz was amazed that
the refrigerating system worked to perfection although I doubt we really
needed it with the weather we had. The trip to Toronto became a blur
of four lane highways, truck stops, fuel, and calls to the routing center
in Oklahoma. No load available for the U.S. so it looked like a dead
I helped unload in Toronto for apparently the last time. I asked Buzz
if I could keep the gloves as a remembrance. No argument. I still have
them . . . somewhere.
© Raymond Clement - Jan 2006
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