Becoming a solo truck driver is one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life, and I have done some hard things. I built houses in the Chicago area for over 12 years. I worked outside in the wind, rain, and cold. I put plywood on roofs on windy days when I could have been blown clear off the roof. I hammered nails until my hand was sore. I humped literally tons of wood through deep mud and up countless sets of stairs. I've been taken to the hospital and stitched up more times than I care to admit. Doing this is every bit as hard as all of those things, and more.
I know this post isn't about home building and it really isn't all about me. What it is about, though, is just how difficult the road to becoming a truck driver really is. Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to scare anyone away by saying this. It's just that I would be doing everyone here a great disservice if I were to say that the path to becoming a solo, Class A, CDL over-the-road trucker is a gentle, easy path that anyone could take. That is not the case. Nor is it the case that this road that you, the reader, may chose to take is a terrible, hellish gauntlet that you must endure to get to a prize. Trucker training is not that either.
What truck training will be for you is a test. It is a test of your character. It is a test of your ability to learn about and adapt to living on the road. It is a test of your determination to succeed doing a difficult and dangerous job that very few are cut out for. Truck training is a test of your physical endurance and ability to focus when you are tired, hungry, and stressed. In short, truck training is a test of just how much patience and perseverance you possess, and how much of these two qualities you are able to acquire. Still reading? Good. Scared yet? Don't worry. Just jump in the truck with me, will you? Let's explore what this trucking thing is before you go ahead and take the plunge. I'll do my best not to bore you and above all, to tell you the truth. That's what we're about here at TruckingTruth, right? Ready? Got your gear with you? Good. Let's roll!
My OTR (that's Over-The-Road in trucker speak) training started on August 24, 2011. I had already completed company orientation after I completed driving school and passed my state driving test, so I had my CDL in my pocket and was ready to go. That's a story for another post. Anyway, I met my trainer in the morning that day and we had a short meeting of sorts to get acquainted and for my trainer to go over some rules of the truck. You'll want to pay attention to these very closely and follow them very carefully. If your trainer doesn't want you to put your feet on the dashboard, don't do it. My trainer did have one funny rule, though- no hot dogs allowed in the truck. He explained why. Apparently, his last student was eating a cheese dog while in the passenger seat and when he bit into it, the cheese inside squirted all over the dashboard, making an awful mess. I was to learn that this driver ( I'll call him Jake, since I have not asked his permission to use his name here) was very particular about the cleanliness of his truck, which I think is an excellent quality in a driver. Oh, I'm still not done with the cheese dog story. Well, after the cheese mess was cleaned up, they picked up a load and everything that could go wrong with that load did. They waited forever to be loaded, then they couldn't get the load to scale at legal weight, (we'll talk more about that in some later posts) then they had to return to the shipper and have the load reworked. When they finally arrived at their final destination, it took forever to get unloaded. That cheese dog just foiled their whole trip! Call it the curse of the cheese dog! Anyhow, I knew I wouldn't be eating any of those in Jake's truck.
Anyway, our talk continued. I was able to tell Jake a little bit about myself. Mostly I just told him that I am in trucking for a career, not just a job. He seemed to appreciate that. When it comes time for you to chat with your trainer, the best word I can give you is just be yourself. If you aren't truthful about anything, the truth will soon come out when you hit the road, believe me. That's a great principle in life, in fact. Being truthful with everyone you deal with will be your best ally when it comes time for your trainer or anyone else to judge your performance, because they will. Remember, it is your trainer's job not only to teach you but to evaluate everything you do and to make a judgment about whether or not you should be behind the wheel of a 40 ton truck. Like I said, this is a test.
After our little talk, Jake decided that it was time to get my gear in the truck and see when we could get a load out of the terminal in Gary, IN and get moving. I was ecstatic when I saw Jake's company truck- a brand spanking new 2012 Volvo 780. That's the one with the big condo sleeper. The color was silver metallic. It was a beautiful machine. "Wow! " I thought. "Cool", "Awesome- I'm going to get to drive that gorgeous truck!" Not so soon, as fate would have it.
When we got inside the truck, Jake told me that since I am a student driver and his truck was nearly new (only 30,000 miles, in fact) that he thought I should sit and observe his driving and listen to instruction for a day or two rather than drive that shiny new rig. Man, was I ever disappointed. I thought that my chance had finally come. I had already waited a week to get placed with a trainer, and now I have to wait two more days to drive. At that point, I had a choice. I could have pitched a fit and demand to drive, which would have gotten me absolutely nowhere. I could have called my Driver Manager and complained that I wasn't being allowed to drive, which may have gotten me behind the wheel, but was a bit risky. My Driver Manager may very well have told me to stop whining and do what my trainer says. What I decided to do was to go along with my trainer's program. At the time, I think it was the right thing to do. This brings me to an important point. When you get to your trainer's truck, they are the captain of that ship. It is that person who decides when and where you will drive, not you, not your driver manager, not your class instructor, not anyone else but them. If you choose to disagree with your trainer about anything, I strongly suggest that you think about what you are about to do before you do it. Who decides if you will be promoted to solo status? Right- your trainer.
Anyway, I spent two long days listening to Jake's instruction and watching him drive. It was a difficult task. Waiting does not come easy for me at all. If that wasn't enough, Jake was due for home time in Iowa only two days after he picked me up in Gary. That meant I was going to spend another 3 days by myself in a hotel in Council Bluffs, Iowa while Jake enjoyed a long awaited visit with his family. Man, was this tough. Let's go back to the two words that are the theme of this post- patience and perseverance, right? I was going to need more of those qualities to get through this. I'm happy to say that I survived 3 days in Iowa just fine. Jake was very considerate of me in that one day he took time away from his family to drive me to Walmart so I could stock up on anything I needed. It was a nice gesture and I thanked him for it. Also as it turns out, my hotel was less than a mile from a nearby state park. I was able to take a walk there one day and just let go of the stress of being away from my family and not being able to drive yet. It did me a lot of good and taught me another important lesson. Sometimes in trucking you are just going to have to make the best of a bad situation. I'm quite sure that in the months to come as I drive solo, there will be more of these. For you, there will be these times too. Just keep your chin up and remember that this too will pass. Bad times never last forever. By the same token, good times never do either. As my grandfather would say- "That's life." Well, it sure is.
Soon enough, my wait was over. Jake was done with home time and finally I would get to drive. Now the learning was really about to begin.
My first day driving with Jake was a challenge. It had been nearly a month since I passed my CDL exam, and my driving was rusty. I ground a few gears. I forgot which gear I was in. Then, I made what could have been a very bad mistake. I nearly missed a highway split on I-80, and instead of just going past it and finding a place to turn around, I put the truck on the exit ramp and cut someone off to do it. I didn't hit them or run them off the road, but I will say that the gap was close. Jake told me that was a dangerous mistake to make. And he was right - it was. If I had been going faster, I could have rolled the truck. In fact, many rollover accidents involving big trucks happen that way. Going too fast on an exit ramp is a prime way to roll a truck and quite possibly be injured or killed in the wreck. Jake was stern with me for good reason, and that was the last time I darted onto an exit ramp at the last moment. Our big lesson for the day was over, but there were more to come.
The next few days took us back to my home state of Illinois, then on to Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, then back to Illinois. All the while Jake was very attentive to my driving, giving me valuable tips and talking about some things I had never heard of. One thing he mentioned was "reading roads." I had never heard of the term before. "What was that?" I asked. Jake explained to me about how he reads which way the road is tilted, whether that tilt in the road will cause the trailer to tilt away from the road or back onto it. The best way I know how to explain this on paper is to think of a Nascar track. You know how the turns at a track like Daytona are banked?
The angle of the track actually holds those 4000 pound cars tightly against the track. That's how heavy cars like those can go 190+ around the track. The banking actually works with the centrifigal force of gravity to keep them on the pavement. Out on the road in the real world, I learned how reading a road helps you get through a turn safer. Sometimes the surface of the road is actually pitched in the opposite direction you would want it to be. For example, you are entering a left hand corner. As you go left, you may notice that your lane is banked right. Your trailer will want to fall right off the edge of the road if you are going too fast. This was important for me to know. Jake taught me a great deal about going around corners. A few days later I was driving through Topeka at night. Jake had warned me that I would encounter some tight curves and to be aware of how fast I was going. I approached one turn in 7th gear at about 40 mph. Since it was night time and I couldn't see how tight the corner was, I decided to slow down a little more and go through it in 6th gear instead. I mentioned to Jake as I downshifted, "I'm not comfortable with 40 mph in this turn, I think I'll slow down."
" I think that's a good idea." Jake said. I glanced at him sideways. He acted like he knew something I didn't. I found out soon enough what that was. When we got to the turn, it was a sharp left hander that was elevated about 2 stories from the expressway below. It was so tight I almost gasped. By the time we got around it, my eyes must have been as wide as saucers. "Holy smokes, that corner was tight."Jake busted out laughing at that point. "Yep, it sure was, wasn't it. Now do you see why it was a good idea to slow down if you can't see how tight the turn is?" "Uh, yea." I said. I was actually a little shaken up. I told Jake that if we had entered that corner at say, 45 mph with that heavy load we were hauling, that I bet we would have rolled.
"We probably would have." Jake said . Jake said something else that really cheered me up that day. After I anticipated that turn and decided to slow down before he had to tell me to, he said probably the best thing he could have at that point. "Yep, Brian, I think you will be a truck driver." It was the best news I had so far. It really encouraged me that I was headed down the right path. Still, I don't want to lose the lesson I learned on that curve. Jake asked me if I had seen the black tire marks on the concrete wall of that same turn. I said that I had. "That's what happens when you go too fast in a curve." That was truly a chilling thought. Those tire marks were way too high on the wall to have been made by a car. I knew what Jake was telling me was true. I wondered what would happen if a truck hit that wall hard enough to go through it and end up on the expressway 2 stories below. That was a very sobering thought. Driving a big rig is a very serious business. Take just one corner too fast, and it could be your last. I'm not exaggerating here. Later in my training, I would see the after effects of drivers who lost control of their trucks. I hope I never forget what I saw.
Our next trip took us to Atlanta, and an unexpected bump in the road for my training.
When we woke up the next day, Jake said something about how he just felt tired of teaching. I didn't know what to make of it. When we got to the terminal, Jake told me that his truck was likely to be laid up for repair for more than a few days. Something about a leak in the transmission line. Jake said that he really didn't think it would be fair to make me wait for his truck to be fixed, and that he had spoken to someone in driver services and that they were going to set me up with another trainer. That way I wouldn't have to wait so long to get back on the road. I was disappointed again, but there really wasn't anything I could do about it. Jake took me in the office and told the manager there the same thing he told me. He also put in a good word for me and said that I drive well and should be able to finish. I thanked Jake for what he taught me, and got ready to ride the shuttle van to the hotel in Atlanta. As it turns out, I would wait another 3 days to get back on another truck. More waiting, more patience, more perseverance. That's what it takes in this industry. Fortunately, my waiting would pay off. Three days later, I was introduced to the trainer whom I would finish with. What's more, the great road adventure I had been dreaming about was about to come true, with unexpected but very positive results.
You'll have to check back to read about that one, though. Heh. Got you hooked , didn't I?
Well, it's getting late. Time to crawl up in that bunk and get some rest. We have many more miles to cover. See ya soon, and stay safe out there!