Hard to believe, but I have just one day left to go in my training before being assigned my own truck. Sometime tomorrow morning my mentor and I, as a team, will be rolling one last time into Lewiston, Idaho. My 42 days of road instruction will come to a close and in just a day or two I should have my own truck and officially a solo company driver.
While we could have easily pressed on last night and arrived back in Lewiston early today, for the first time since hitting the road on Saturday April 12th, we are actually “killing time” on the road in order to finish this trip on my final day of training. So, after arriving early this morning at a Pilot Truck Stop along Interstate 90, some 175 miles east of Missoula, we’ve parked our trusty Kenworth and are enjoying a good 20+ hours of sleep and relaxation. A little less than 500 miles separates us from our final destination. We’ll leave sometime late tonight, with me behind the wheel, to complete the journey and bring our long travels together to an end.
My mentor has taught me a lot, based on his 34 years and more than 4-million miles of long-haul truck driving. His work as an on-the-job instructor is nearly over but our friendship will continue on. Along with my roommate Thomas from the Academy, who I’ve kept in regular contact with, Dennis no doubt will remain a good friend and advisor. He’s gone well beyond my expectations and has, over these last six-plus weeks, watched over me and my welfare. He’s shown great patience as I’ve ground and tested the gears of his $110,000 truck and missed exits and routing along the way. Right now as he sleeps in the back I’m sitting in the air conditioned front cab writing this post. I’ve been lucky to have been taught by one of the best and to have spent these long days of driving behind the wheel of a new 8-speed Kenworth truck. I will often be reminded of Dennis’ wisdom and his advice as I travel in the days ahead.
It’s been 75 days since I drove the slightly more than 200 miles to Lewiston from my “home” in Yakima and it’s been a whirlwind experience and quite the journey, to say the least! A lot has certainly changed in my life. The Swift Academy and it’s accelerated training, to prepare me to receive my Class “A” Commercial Drivers License, was a big challenge all in itself. It’s something I’ve written about in my earlier entries. Then for the last 6 weeks it’s been a menu of “real world” long-haul trucking.
In our 41 days together Dennis and I have driven more than 30,000 miles crisscrossing 16 states and numerous cities and communities along the way. I’ve climbed tall mountain passes and driven along some of the west’s most beautiful canyons along the Snake and Columbia Rivers. I’ve been on a two-lane stretch of road so close to California’s Mt. Shasta, it was if I could have reached out and touched it. A far cry from the view one sees from Interstate 5. We’ve covered the entire northern states from Washington to Wisconsin. We’ve travelled south as far as Illinois and Indiana returning to the west coast via Iowa and Nebraska. We’ve hauled everything from trailer loads of empty tin cans and Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice to huge 4500 pound rolls of paper. We’ve visited a Tracy, California pet food manufacturer, that didn’t smell so nice, and a large detergent distributor in Salt Lake with the mixed aroma of a load of freshly washed clothes as well as dishes.
During these past several weeks I’ve often thought as I drive, I can’t believe I get paid to do this! I’ve seen some of the most picturesque sights. Among them numerous small mid-western American towns. Communities dotted with farms and quiet tree-lined streets with beautiful white steepled churches and little school houses. I’ve also passed their proud high schools with their football stadiums and seen the little cemeteries where they bury their dead. One can only imagine the history and the people that have passed through these towns.
During our last trip through mid-Iowa I was driving along westbound state highway 18, not far from our connection with Interstate 35 near Mason City. I couldn’t help but notice the varying shades of green grass and the differing crops and farms that blanket the flat landscape there. I’m reminded of one sign I saw for a nearby community; “Welcome to Rudd. Not bigger, just better!” America is truly a blessed country and a wonderful place to visit. Often in our day-to-day lives we become cocooned within our own communities and surroundings. We forget that there are a lot of people with diverse lifestyles and a great big world out there.
Shortly after the drive through Iowa I found myself meandering along Interstate 90 and through the “Badlands” and “Black Hills” region of South Dakota. Along the way, and seen from the freeway, are scattered a few authentic old west towns that look just as they did in the 1880s. Among them, and close to Rapid City, is the once lawless and infamous town of “Deadwood.” You may know this as the place where the popular HBO television series of the same title was set. Deadwood is famous for it’s old-west reputation and ripe history along with it’s colorful inhabitants. It’s where in 1876 Wild Bill Hickok in Saloon No. 10 met his doom with a bullet to the back of his head. Apparently next to Hickok’s grave in Deadwood can also be seen the final resting place of frontierswoman Calamity Jane.
I also saw a tourist attraction along the same stretch of Interstate 80 at a casino where you could see movie props from the Kevin Costner film, Dances With Wolves, as well as some of his other movies. Dances is among my favorites and apparently the movie was filmed at a state park in nearby Custer. Kostner owns the casino and found interest in it while shooting the movie. Not far too is the famous Mount Rushmore National Memorial. While I haven’t had the opportunity to explore these sights as a team driver, I’m hoping that as a solo driver I’ll be able to take at least some advantage.
Late last Tuesday night we spent a couple of hours at Walcott, Iowa and “the world’s largest truck stop.” Just west of Davenport the Iowa 80 Truck Stop is a truck driver’s department store of-sorts and a modern multi-level grown-up’s toy store. It includes elevators and several huge floors of shopping space as well as a number of custom-painted trucks on display in their main “showroom” along with the absolute best showers I’ve experienced to date! Nearly anything you’d want to buy as a long-haul trucker is available at the store or through their catalog. Their parking lot was huge with room for over 800 trucks.
It’s amazing that what I once feared, I now love. I can remember, in my first few days on the road, dreading the thought of driving the two lane highways through the numerous communities, valleys and hills one has to navigate. These are conditions that test a low-mileage trucker versus the relative ease of traveling the Interstate, with no stop signs or traffic lights to encumber your progress. I worried about the constant slowing down I would encounter along the way and the fact that I would have to downshift the truck frequently to control my speed as well as the engine RPMs. It was difficult to say the least, but now, with the miles of experience behind me, I actually look forward to the challenge, and the change in scenery, one experiences on these secondary roadways.
I certainly haven’t perfected the process of shifting but am well on my way. The same can be said for backing these trucks and trailers into those spaces separated by just inches between other trailers and 18-wheelers. I’m far from perfection in this process as well but know that, with additional time and practice, I’ll be able to handle the challenge. It’s like I told Dennis last night, “I don’t want to be just a truck driver, I want to be a darn good one!”
To wrap things up, it’s been a great experience. Not an easy one for sure, and in fact far harder than I expected. But I’ve had a good time none-the-less. There were admittedly a few times — early on — when I wondered, “Is this really what I want to do?” Now with nearly 15,000 miles of personal long-haul driving experience behind me I’m definitely happy with my decision. I’ve come to the realization that I don’t have to do this job … I get to!
In the weeks and months ahead I have a lot to look forward to. Among them, renewing old friendships as well as family relationships. My early plans include a trip, with time off, in the Washington D.C. area where I grew up and went to high school. A new-found friend awaits my visit there. I’m hoping to not only visit some of the areas where I lived, but to see Arlington National Cemetery, as well as the White House and other attractions while there. After that it’ll be on to Swift company headquarters in Phoenix for some required simulator training and a few days to visit my son and new daughter in-law as well as other family and good friends. The company store also will get a visit!
Then I’m hoping to once again head back east, this time to Akron, Ohio. There I’ll visit my only surviving uncle and his wife of more than 60 years along with their family. He’s among that “greatest generation” and truly an American hero who, along with thousands of other soldiers, fought for their lives on June 6, 1944 to take back France’s Omaha Beach from the occupying forces of Germany. It was the beginning of the end for the Nazis and their occupation of Europe.
Finally in early September I’m planning a weekend visit with one of my best friends from the Seattle area. Only this time we’ll be in New Jersey where he’ll be on a job assignment. We’re looking forward to a weekend in the big Apple and whatever else meets our fancy over the two and a half days. Other places, friends and family are in my plans for the remainder of the year.
Thanks again to all those who regularly visit this blog and send me messages of support. I’m surprised to see that there are folks who visit regularly from not only many unexpected places around the country, but from various locations around the world. It would be nice to know who you are and what brings you to my little spot on the World Wide Web. Please take a moment to say hello and to ask questions or leave comments should you be so inclined.
I’m not sure where the next few days will lead, but you can be sure that I’ll document much of what I see, do and think within these pages all along the way. We’ll “talk” again soon!