When I was little, I wanted to be many things when I grew up, but being a truck driver was not one of them. Yet, now I can call myself a truck driver. Kind of.
January 1 seemed an auspicious day to pick up and load my rental truck – my little big rig – for a cross-country journey. After 30 minutes of paperwork, instruction, shopping for ratchet straps and making payments at my local Home Depot, the employee gave me a single silver key to my truck. Glad to have two strong arms, I hoisted myself up into driver’s seat, slid behind the wheel, and cranked the engine. Across the parking lot I rolled, 7 miles an hour. It was going to be a long drive.
At oh-dark-thirty the next morning, fog met me in the driveway and I discovered the wiper blades were in great shape. I cautiously reversed out of the driveway, and headed for the turnpike. My truck hugged the right lane, and I relished that I was quite comfortable cruising along 5 miles under the speed limit. The headlights worked, my brain didn’t yet need any radio to distract me, and my seat was reasonably comfy. It was still going to be a long drive.
Soon I needed to pass an even slower vehicle in front of me. I took several minutes to fully assess the lane to my left; I had no rear view mirror and I had to get used to the two-part mirror on my driver’s door. While the huge mirror reflected much, it was the small mirror that filled in the blind spot. Finally I was confident I could switch lanes so I drifted to my left. It worked! No one was hurt and I didn’t cause an accident! I passed the slower vehicle, waited another mile or so and drifted back to the right lane. Out of nowhere, a full-sized 18-wheeler blew past me on my left. With limited peripheral vision, it was impossible to see or sense other vehicles approaching from behind, until they were right next to me. Over the next four days and 2,000 miles, I would never became accustomed to that.
The driver of the next huge truck to pass me actually slowed to drive side by side, shoulder to shoulder, axle to axle. I glanced to my left; Oh, my gosh, I was eye level with a truck driver in an 18-wheeler! Gulp. I cruised on, remaining in the right lane, in my own little big rig…until the sign by the Florida Agriculture Inspection Station commanded that “all trucks stop”. Sure, I was in a truck, but my 16-footer only had 6 wheels. Did that mean I was actually driving a real truck?
I pulled in to the Inspection Station and smiled at the guard, asking “am I supposed to be here?” He replied in the affirmative, asked a few questions, and when he learned I was headed to Colorado, his colleague decided to inspect my cargo. I started to make a joke about a certain kind of plant that is legally grown in Colorado, but stopped before I planted any seeds. No pun intended. I hopped out of my cab, unlocked the back and rolled up the door. (I had one of those fancy combination locks that 7th graders use on their school lockers.) After a bit more than a cursory examination, the inspector approved my cargo and I was free to go. Three state borders, five hundred miles and a couple of pit stops later, I pulled into a hotel in Mississippi. It had a small parking lot.
Throughout Florida, Alabama and even half way across Mississippi, I had carefully analyzed all the entrances and exits of gas stations, driveways, parking lots, and so on, but at the hotel I couldn’t be bothered. It was dark, it was raining, and I was very tired. And my GPS had been providing bad intel, so I was cranky too. I ignored the “no trucks allowed” sign, parked incorrectly and chatted up the front desk clerk. Turned out that I was allowed to park my little big rig after all, and the clerk showed me a perfect spot for the truck to spend the night.
At dawn I fired up the ignition and began the second leg of my journey driving through drizzling rain for 400 of the next 500 miles. I now had at least 12 hours experience and my journey was going well except I wanted for one thing: a tall semi-dry cappuccino from Starbucks. Try to find a Starbucks in Mississippi that you can see from the Interstate – it isn’t going to happen. I finally drove into the city of Jackson, sans peripheral vision, and got my fix.
At the end of the day, it was such a treat to arrive at a long-time friend’s home near Dallas and to have a good conversation, a hot meal, and an adult beverage waiting for me. Ahhhh….Marty volunteered to ride (and drive!) with me for the next and last 1,000 miles. Being able to share driving and chat along the miles would be luxurious. Marty confirmed we would spend the entire next day driving only in Texas and before she took the wheel, I gave driving lessons in a large parking lot at a gas station in the middle of somewhere.
We alternated driving every few hours, had contests to find the cheapest gas ($1.73 a gallon!), and learned that our auxiliary cable to the stereo didn’t work. The massive dashboard stored our collection of water bottles, snacks, and iPhones. We finally stopped for dinner and a hotel close to the border, still in Texas of course. An ice storm had wreaked havoc on the small town of Dumas, and muscling the little big rig across icy parking lots was challenging. In the freezing rain, we still opted to drive 100 yards to go out for dinner. Back at the hotel, we parked and re-parked the truck four times until we were satisfied we would have an easy exit in the morning.
The fourth day was Home Stretch Day. Winds in New Mexico and Colorado were fierce and rattled the sides of the truck. They decreased the mileage from 10 mpg to 8.5 mpg. Oh well. Eighteen wheelers continued to pass me, and I am now more in awe of the great skill required to maneuver one of those big rigs; I say steer clear when you share the road with one. Truck drivers have their hands full – and they are bigger than our normal civilian cars – so let them have the space to drive. I rediscovered that it is a lot easier to see and absorb America the Beautiful as a passenger; somehow as a driver it is too easy to ignore the scenery. It was fun to see snow on the ground next to the sunny yellow New Mexico border sign, and the rugged Rockies were magnificent as we paralleled them for hours.
We finished the journey and safely parked the little big rig our destination, north of Denver, in time for another home cooked meal. It still took a day or so to unload and return the truck, but wow, what a ride!