Wednesday, May 13, 2015


Having re-read the prior posts about my trucking odyssey[1], I offer some overlooked events, observations, and concluding reflections.

On May 13, 2015 I turned in my electric blue 2014 Kenworth T-680, scrubbed and cleaned, inside and out.  I shined up the chrome and wheel rims with Busch’s.  Busch’s takes off tar and bugs with ease, as well as the dull film of oxidation, leaving the chrome and the brushed aluminum wheel rims gleaming. On the road, Busch’s can only be found at Pilot truck stops (for $20 a pop).

So now the tractor is a clean machine, but it is only a machine, a “dead” thing (as opposed to, say, a horse).  Without periodic maintenance and repair machines break down.  For example, fuel filters needs to be changed regularly. On my truck there was a see-through glass container holding one of two fuel filters. You could see the filter floating there in a certain amount of diesel fuel.  Ideally, the fluid level should be near the bottom of the filter. If the fluid is close to the top of the container it means that the filter is plugged and it must be replaced.  You’ll know if you have a plugged up fuel filter because you lose a significant amount of power – the truck will hardly be able to climb even the slightest incline.

Every pay period a small percentage of my pay went into a “maintenance account.”  You are able to draw on this account once you get to a service garage.  In the truck world, this means a TA, Petro or Sapp Bros. truck stop, or a Speedco. (Loves provides a limited tire service.  Forget Pilot and Flying J; in this sense you might say that these are not real truck stops, just fuel, shit & shower depots.)  Of course there still exist independent truck and trailer repair facilities.  But, not surprisingly, one big corporate entity prefers to deal with another big corporate entity. 

An oil change costs somewhere between $200-$300 and is usually combined with changing the fuel filters, another $150-$175.  During the year I had to have this done twice.  I also had to replace one of my drive tires.  A new tire can run you $750 or more (not an off-brand or re-tread).  And I replaced my two steer tires, which I think cost me $950 for both.  The air filters have to be changed too, another $150 or so.  And there is an annual motor vehicle inspection that must be performed, $65-$75.  Of course you have to have a supply of grease on hand to keep your fifth wheel lubed up. About once every week or two, you perform the ritual by scraping off the old, dirt laden grease, then apply new grease.  (This was a learn-as-you-go lesson.)

Inside the cab of the tractor I had a converter to be able to plug things in that require AC power.  I made the mistake of plugging in a rice cooker that drew 500 watts.  It blew the converter.  Luckily it was under warranty but I was still charged for labor to reinstall a new one.  I managed to find another, lower-watt rice cooker and even a crock pot that worked like a dream.  I would load up the crock pot with some meat, onions, garlic, and one bottle of water, switch it on, and head out. (Much later I would add stuff like  carrots and potatoes so they wouldn't over-cook.) It would slow-cook all day and be ready when I stopped driving. The rice cooker had a steamer in it and I could really eat like a king – King Chef of the Road – squash and broccoli and brussel sprouts.  My wife would whip up some savory sauces that I would bring and add to the gumbo. 

I kept my refrigerator and cupboard stocked as best I could, choosing from the fine selections at WalMart, as they have accessible parking lots that can accommodate tractor trailers.  WalMart really has the cheapest and best genetically modified foods available to the trucker out on the road today, not to mention catering to their usual, Walmartian clientele. When you are hungry you’re not as picky about your food.  When I was home, though, I raided Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and stocked up.  Beware of eating mixed nuts and other, addictive fatty food while (sedentarily) chugging down the road.  Besides making you tired, you gain weight like crazy if you are not careful.  Of course, there’s not much else to do while driving, except to maybe smoke, tune-in to the radio wasteland, or talk on the phone (using a Bluetooth device of course).

When you see a warning light come on on the dashboard, like an amber or red “check engine” light, it’s ultimately a problem that needs to be handled by the manufacturer, viz., Kenworth.  If the truck is new enough – no more than about one-year old – repairs are covered by the warranty.  (I shudder to think of the other TransRam drivers out there whose rigs are more than one-year old!)  

There are Kenworth dealers from coast-to-coast. The catch is this: there is an exasperating wait time and, it seems you cannot be assured that they will fix the problem.  I had the good fortune of having to go in for servicing only three times.  Each time I waited almost a full day just to get into a bay door.  The work they do is hit-or-miss.  I had an amber “check engine” light lit up on the dash ever since I began driving my truck.  Kenworth diagnosed it as indicating that it needed a software update.  Well, they updated the software and it soon came on again and remained, on-again/ off-again for the remainder of my year of driving. I finally concluded that it didn’t really affect the operation of the vehicle (although there also seemed to be a perennial, misfiring third cylinder, according to the computer code!)  I had other hassles with the Kenworth dealers, but won't bore you any further.

Hopefully, whatever problem you have, you won’t need to be towed to a service garage.  At a minimum, towing is $200 - $300, and can be a lot more, depending on how far you must be towed.  If it’s a tractor problem, it’s your problem – the money comes out of your own pocket.  This includes getting towed perhaps 20 feet because your drive wheels are spinning and you are stuck.  This happened to me once when I went home on leave; even though I was on level ground, the wheels had sunk into the ground just enough so that they couldn’t get any traction.  Lucky for me, a neighbor with a big truck full of felled trees came over and pulled me out before the tow truck driver could get there (this was one time I was glad the tow truck driver was late in getting to me). 

When your fuel gauge gets to one-eighth, a warning message and red light comes on.  However, I’ve found that there is still quite a bit of fuel left in the tanks, even when the gauge shows them as “empty”.  The truck had two, (supposedly) 100-gallon tanks, though I cannot remember ever putting much more than 150 gallons, maximum, in both.  I suppose this means there are about 50 gallons left when you get to the one-eighth level(?)  But figuring how many miles you can go before you run out of fuel is hard to do because the mileage you’ll get depends on the weight you are pulling.  You certainly do NOT want to run out of diesel when you are on a country road with no shoulder.  Safety is always the prime directive!

But Thursdays are problematic for TransRam drivers.  Why? – because Thursdays are the last day in the pay period.  Ideally, you want to be below one-quarter or even one-eighth by the end of your driving on Thursdays.  If you haven’t burned the fuel in your tanks by then, your paycheck will be lower than you might otherwise expect because you have paid for fuel but didn’t get the money-per-miles to counter that fuel expense.  So there is a tendency, on Thursdays, to drive on empty, perhaps stopping to buy 20 gallons here or there.  Still, risk takers like me would rather see how far the truck will go on “empty”.  This got me into trouble once.  Of course I was running low while on an interstate – the Indiana Turnpike – not on a country road.  If I remember correctly, I must have gone about 170 miles on “E” before sputtering to a halt – less than a mile from a service area.  I made the mistake of re-starting the engine, which got me to the ramp of the service area.  However, this ”extra push”  drained the diesel from the lines. 

On this occasion I did as I was trained to do and called “Road Assist,” the in-house AAA as-it-were.  I had to purchase a 5-gallon fuel container (for some ungodly amount). Of course the opening in the container was like those of cars – too small for the larger diameter dispenser at the truck pumps to fit into it (keeping non-truck drivers from using truck diesel, which is taxed less than regular road diesel) – so I had to buy the more expensive “auto diesel”.

That morning it was still dark and the nozzle wasn’t that long and it was hard to get it aimed so that the fuel went into the tank.  After lots of spillage and perseverance, I managed to get a respectable amount in.  Then, under the tutelage of the Road Assist guy, I opened the hood and found the manual pump attached to the fuel line that allows you to pump diesel back into the line.  I was told to pump this lever 100 times (or was it 200?) and then try to start the truck.  No luck.  I was then told to repeat the procedure.  (It was kind of like a tiny replica of a portable, not-very-efficient bicycle pump.)  After another 100 (or 200?) pumps I tried again, and presto!  The engine roared to life (even though it’s really a dead thing, not a living thing, like a horse).  Off I went, wiser now, despite the wear and tear on muscles that I hadn’t used in some time.

During my truck driving stint I discovered that Ohio provides free showers for truckers (or anyone who knows about it) on the I-80 Ohio Turnpike.  You only need to bring your own towel.  That’s a good bit of info for the gypsy traveler.  Also, Iowa provides free wifi at its rest areas, another convenient perk.    

My preferred driving schedule was to get going in the morning anywhere from 3:00-5:00 AM.  I love getting up and puttering around before sun-up.  I call this the “monk’s hour”.  Before setting off I’d get up each morning and brew a strong cup of coffee using my electric kettle.  One of my fondest memories was watching a lunar eclipse one early morn while traversing the hills of western New York.  This was not “blues before sunrise” – anything but.  As the dawn breaks, observing the slight variations in morning light, leading to that orange sun butting up on the horizon, was always new and always welcome (after hoping and praying that no deer or other critter darted out of the dark into my path in the preceding hours).  Sunsets were lovely too, but the morning sun has always been my favorite.

Another reason to be an early bird is to assure that you will have a parking place when your day is done.  My preference is for rest areas. Truck stops are noisier and dirtier. Rest area are easier to pull into and out of.  Plus, I am self-sufficient, food-wise, and don’t need what they sell at truck stops – except fuel.  But if you need to park at a truck stop, you better get in there early, about 2:00-3:00 PM.  By 6:00 PM they are likely to be filled up – or the only places left are harder to back into, and of course it seems like all the other truckers there are watching you.  Still, some truck drivers prefer truck stops.  I never could understand the draw to truck stops over rest areas – being eyeball to eyeball among all those trucks lined up staring at one another. No, merci! It’s as though you’re a part of a mutual admiration society of dissociatives who reinforce each other’s entranced state of being. No, merci!     

I prefer solitude – being alone with the Alone (if that’s not too foo-foo of a notion).  Over-the-road truck driving will afford you more solitude than most any other job, except maybe that of a forest ranger. This is a good thing, if used constructively.  Read, write, research, prepare food, practice patience, mindfulness and moderation, and talk to loved ones – that’s not a bad life, if you can handle at least a temporary sojourn from the natural world and your loving wife, family and friends. 

Stop and think a minute.  Ask yourself how much time you spend interacting with living things as opposed to “dead” things?  Only the natural world is alive – the plants and animals, the soil and sunlight, bodies of water – these are chock full of life force.  Communing with the energy-replenishing natural world is, well, natural for human beings.  To be cooped up within the four walls of any sterile environment (home, office, factory) for very long, or to spend long hours, day-after-day in a motor vehicle is not good for human beings.  We are free-ranging animals who need space and movement, fresh air, clean water and meaningful, creatively fulfilling work while being amidst other sentient creatures, human and non-human.  This is our heritage as Earthlings here on this planet. 

So when we fabricate artificial and synthetic things, and then spend day-upon-day and even night-after-night among these non-natural things, we become like these “dead” things – physically, mentally, and psychically dead.  Even our holiest-of-holy hi-tech devices lead us astray.  Those still glued to TVs worldwide are self-conditioning and degenerating themselves.  I’m not advocating that we become Luddites who shun all technology.  Rather, we might just start trying to associate a whole lot more with the living – until we find that we actually prefer LIFE (or what might be described as a more “anarcho-primitivist” state of being).   

In the summertime, a fully mature oak tree cycles something like 300 gallons of water per day by pumping it up from its roots, through its trunk and branches, and transpiring it through its leaves into the air.  Imagine what an energy dynamo each tree is!  Do you think if you were to sit and lean against the base of that tree that you would partake of some of its life force?  Have you ever gone into the wilderness and stayed there for a few weeks or a month?  Try it sometime.  After only a few days, once your chattering mind settles down, you may find a whole new perspective – a whole new you – a more whole you.   

I suppose humans must have a tremendous capacity to endure long periods of isolation from the natural world.  Truck drivers are a case in point.  Eventually, the cumulative effect of being removed from the life-affirming energies of that natural world will take its toll.  But it’s not just truckers who suffer, not by any means.  Indeed, we are all zombies to one degree or another, to the extent that we are disconnected from our optimal health, our optimal potential.  This then begs the question: just what is real anymore?  Are we all just dead (or undead) and subservient to other zombies, who in turn, are subservient to handlers in the form of vampire controllers?  And if we get more real, what will we be like as human beings?  If we swear-off clinging to groups of other dissociatives, severely attenuating such human-to-human contact, and instead have more communion with an other-than-human, living world, what human potential might we re-claim?

These types of thoughts are what have rambled through my roving mind as I have roamed this land, far and wide. 

[1]   The first, The Socially Conscious Truck Driver, was written before I started driving. The second, Jack, the Truck Driving Man, was penned after about three months on the road. (Radio Wasteland, was published about seven months in, though it is more tangential to actual truck driving). The Suffering Trucker was written close to the end of my one-year commitment.  All can be found on this blog.    

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