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The International Writers Magazine
: USA Travel

Eighteen Wheels Across the USA    
Raymond K. Clement

The 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 trucker’s 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.
 “I’d 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 don’t have anything now, but the next trip, you’re on. You sure you know what you’re doing?”
 “Absolutely not, that’s why I want to go and find out for myself.”
 
Three weeks later, on a chilly and drizzly October night I got a call, “Can you be ready in one hour? I’m 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 didn’t 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 we’d 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 eighteen-wheelers.
 
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 you’re 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.
 
Buzz’s 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 driver’s 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? “You’re 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, It’s easy,” he said as he showed me the gear positions. “Remember to double clutch at every gear change. It will be awhile but you’ll 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 truck.
“There is one thing you must always be aware of; you’ve 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, you’ll be OK. Let’s 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 he’d 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: “Don’t use so much gas. Keep your eye on the rearview mirrors. Don’t 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. You’re 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 mean’s 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 we’ll 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. You’ll 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 Mozart’s Twenty-first Symphony filled the cab.
 “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 wasn’t bad, sort of a change of pace. Sort of like that Beethoven guy, right?”  I put on a tape of Mozart’s horn concertos. It was five o’clock 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. I’d 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 we’d 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, Gate 17.
 
Never got to my sister’s 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 we’d 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 to reality.
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 head home.
 
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

email: rkmclement@yahoo.com

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