Monday, April 30, 2012

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Driver

As some of you know, in my day job (or as I sometimes say, "the portion of my life that generates income"), I'm an engineering geophysicist who develops technology to detect unexploded ordnance (dud munitions) on former military training ranges, then uses that technology to actually do what it's intended to do (that is, it's not ivory tower research that sits on a shelf). This is not the dangerous extreme occupation it sounds like. Dud ordnance are not land mines; they are not sensitively fuzed objects (and yes, in this context, fuze is spelled thusly). They do not blow up if you step on them, though disturbing them in any way is best left to explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) personnel, who are the greatest guys to drink beer with, ever.

I have a vehicular UXO detection system that is transported in a 32' trailer towed by a pickup truck. It's not a tractor-trailer, but 32' is a pretty good-sized rig to tow. The truck is a 2008 Chevy 3500 HD duallie crew cab with the Duramax turbodiesel, the Allison transmission, and a tall utility body on the back. A very nice truck that could yank a house off its foundation. You don't need a CDL (commercial driver's license) to drive it, but you need to know what you're doing. I also have an underwater UXO detection system built around a 17' Carolina Skiff, so the boat gets towed around on its trailer by the same truck. It's not as intimidating to tow as the 32' trailer, but it's still towing, which is manifestly different from zipping along in the BMW. When we deploy these systems, they need to be mobilized to job sites, so someone needs to transport them there. That someone is, usually, me.

What, Me Drive? You'd think it makes no financial sense for someone who earns an engineering salary to drive a truck. And you'd be right, and wrong. In a perfect world, a less expensive crew member would be available to hop in the truck and tow the trailer or the boat to a job site. As it happens, I'm the only crew member who is based where the equipment is. Hiring someone to drive the rig is more problematic than you'd think. Most truckers-for-hire drive their own equipment, whereas we'd need to hire someone to drive the company-owned truck (the utility body on the back of our pickup truck is stocked with necessary parts; it's not just a matter of hiring what's sometimes called a "slingshotter" to show up with his pickup to tow your trailer).

Flying another crew member in from another location to drive the rig is possible, but the way the economics work, it's often cheaper for me to drive it. Here's why. When I put together the budget for the mobilization costs for a job, if I need to fly somewhere, I budget in the travel time. If I have to fly to California, you won't be surprised that I budget in one day each way for travel. And if I have to fly somewhere close, like DC, you might be surprised that I budget in... the same amount of time, one day each way. Why? Because I can't assume I'll be doing anything else that day except for traveling for that job. Thus, there's a day each way of mob time budgeted in for me to fly to a job, whether it's nearby or across the country. So if a survey site is within a day's drive, say, 500 miles, me driving the rig is actually the cheapest option because there's essentially a free day of travel on which I would've been flying anyway. I did the calculation, and for a two-day drive, it's about a wash if I drive or if I fly in a less-expensive employee and put them up in a hotel. For three day drives and longer, it's clearly less expensive to fly someone else in. But many jobs are within 1000 miles.

I just returned from a geophysical survey of a river in Rockford IL, about 1100 miles each way, so before it all gets hazy, I thought I'd jot down these notes from the road.

The Spirit is Willing, But the Body is... Actually, Surprisingly, Almost Willing: Until about two years ago, I hadn't logged heavy road miles in many years. I have a bulged disc and sciatica. I didn't know if my body or my mind would be up to it. But with a Tempur Pedic back pillow, a well-placed dead pedal for my left foot, and a bottle of Advil just in case, my body cooperates. And my mind seems to like it. It's like the physical manifestation of repeating a mantra. I may occasionally scribble a song lyric or something on a to-do list, but you can't do heavy analytical work while driving. You need to let your mind do the road Zen thing, which is like letting the cat out. The cat wants to go out. And, since I don't mind the driving, it IS awfully convenient to load the truck, hop in it, and simply leave.

So, for jobs within a two-day drive (about 1000 miles), I'm a truck-driving man.

You Gotta Have Tunes: The first long haul I did in 2010, I took two shoeboxes full of CDs. And when I stopped the truck short because someone cut me off, both boxes slid off the passenger seat and crashed on the floor, spilling delicate discs among the detritus. I remember thinking why are you still using CDs? This is fucking stupid. It was the event that finally iPod-enabled me. It's not that I'm a Luddite (I'm an engineer, for chrissake), but I can be notoriously resistant to change if I have the perception that it's change for change's sake. The ability to carry your entire record collection (hell, it's not "your entire record collection"; it's a set of music probably a hundred times the size of what used to be "your entire record collection") on a device a third the size of a deck of cards is one of those Star Trek tricorder moments that, when the future arrives, we just yawn and don't even notice it.

Wearing The Hat: I had a professional truck driver ("JR") who used to drive for me. He moved to El Paso TX, but before he left, he took me out in the rig (which, again, is not a full-sized tractor-trailer, but a pickup truck with a utility body on the bed, towing a 32' trailer) for a lesson. JR said "when you step into the truck and sit in the seat, remember that you're working. Put your working hat on. All those things you probably do on a long drive in your own car -- fiddling with the iPod, dialing the phone, pouring yourself coffee, riffling through the food bag to find the peanuts -- don't do them. Concentrate on driving, and doing it safely." This is damned good advice. I wouldn't say I never do these when I'm driving the truck, but boy I keep them to a minimum. I set the iPod on shuffle and leave it there. I don't make calls to anyone not on speed dial. I never check e-mail or texts while driving (which isn't a sacrifice; I don't do that anyway). I rarely pour coffee as I am addicted to double-shots of espresso (more below).

The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors: Sorry, been reading too much Game of Thrones. When I was young, I used to drive anywhere, any time, any state of consciousness. I well remember Maire Anne and picking up a Drive-Away car (someone else gets their car transported across the country; you get a free car for a few days) in San Francisco in the evening, and making it into Salt Lake City around sunrise. Now, I'm good for just before dawn 'till dusk driving. I like to get rolling before dawn, 5 or 5:30am. There's something about driving in those few hours before the sun comes up that's like stealing time. From then 'till dusk, I can easily pound out 500 miles, and more. But half an hour after the sun goes down, I am done. This works well for me, and is in keeping with the DOT / logbook regulations of only driving for 11 hours in a 14 hour period. As singer/songwriter Greg Brown says, "We used to say we could drive all night. Now we don't want to."

It's Big, But Not THAT Big: A 32' trailer is not full-size (that's 53'), but it's still a pretty good-size rig to be hauling. When JR took me out for the lesson, he impressed on me the care needed for lane changes. I said "can I just put the rig in the right lane and leave it there?" He said "that's what I often do, but it doesn't keep you out of trouble, because lanes form and vanish. You can be in the right lane and all of a sudden it's exit only and you need to move over." So true. Being one step ahead of the lane dynamics as merges, exits, and tolls come and go is part of the ballet.

Mirror, Mirror (or, "I need devotion to back it up"): You don't want to be wrong about having someone in your blind spot when you change lanes while towing something. Careful adjustment of those big and little mirrors is essential, as the small ones must be aimed to eliminate the blind spots. I became comfortable at driving the rig, as long as I was going forward. However, backing up a rig using only the mirrors (the utility body on the back, and the height of the trailer itself, prevents you being able to see anything out the back window; you need to rely completely on the mirrors) is challenging. I got very good at backing it up in order to put it inside our building at work, but that's a straight shot at a ramp with a huge parking lot in front of it that gives hundreds of feet to line it up. There's a trick to backing a trailer up straight -- adjust it so there's equal amounts of the trailer in the rear view mirror. That's easy. But I still can't do the delivery truck thing where you block two lanes of traffic and back up, in one shot, to a loading dock. But I don't need to.

Why Truck Stops Suck: The first few times I drove the rig to Maryland and back, I was so concerned about being in a situation where I'd need to back up that I planned the route right down to knowing exactly where I'd buy gas each time, and verified that there was a truck stop there with a long straight shot at the pump. As it turns out, using "truck stops" is a royal pain in the butt. The diesel pumps at most truck stops, or for that matter on the truck side of many service plazas, don't accept credit cards -- instead, they take fuel account numbers. So, when you pull your little candy-ass truck up to a pump at a real truck stop, you have to get out, go inside, give them your card, go back out, fuel up, go back inside, pay and get the receipt, and come back out to find a real truck with a real driver right behind you looking like he's ready to roll right over you. For this reason, whenever possible, it's vastly preferable to stay on the car side of the car/truck divide and find the diesel pump there, if there is one, where you can just swipe a credit card and go.

It's Different for Truck Drivers: In addition to physical size (of the truck and trailer; get your mind out of the gutter), there are other potential entanglements you need to deal with when driving a truck. All those obscure signs for commercial vehicles and 5 ton GVW (Gross Vehicle Weight) apply to you. Basically, you can't drive on any road that's called a parkway. Those are for passenger vehicles only, not commercial vehicles. This is especially important in the Northeast. Roads like the Taconic Parkway in upstate New York are beautiful, but you can't include them in your route. If I'm headed south from Boston, I'd normally head over the Tappan Zee Bridge and take the Garden State Parkway, but if I'm in the truck, I can't; I either have to head way further west and cut through PA, or drive into the teeth of the beast and take the rig through NYC over the George Washington Bridge. I've now done this four times, and each time it gets easier, though the "if I get a flat here, it's going to totally suck" factor looms large. In these days where most of us program a GPS and do what it says, you need to check the route it gives you. There are GPS units specifically for truckers that in addition to keeping you off the parkways, also have bridge heights and roads with low overhanging wires programmed into them. If I do this much more, I'll probably spring for one.

And there's the log book. When I'm driving the truck for work, I'm operating a commercial vehicle, and even though I don't need a CDL, I need to fill out a logbook that shows when I'm driving versus on-duty but not driving (ie taking fuel breaks) versus off-duty, and abide by the rule of only driving for 11 hours within a 14 hour period before being off duty.

Also, when you're driving a commercial vehicle, those "when lights are flashing, all trucks take this exit for weigh station" signs apply to you. The advice is to "assume the position," meaning windows rolled down, sunglasses removed, radio off, and attitude stowed.

Service Plazas on the Turnpike: New York, New Jersey, and Ohio have wonderful service plazas on the turnpike, with drive-through diesel, food, and restrooms. Some of them even have Starbucks. But when you cross into Pennsylvania, they vanish -- you have to get off the highway for fuel and food. Drive 500 miles and you quickly appreciate the value of tax dollars at work at these plazas. I got to where I could hit the rest room, fuel up, and be rolling again in 10 minutes. In contrast, when an exit sign says "Fuel / Food," you don't know if that's 500 yards or three miles off the highway, and if you're driving a truck, you don't know whether or not there's clear access to the diesel pump. When towing, driving roads with good service plazas makes for a much less stressful trip.

And Speaking of Starbucks... I am, at this stage of my life, totally and completely coffee-addicted. It's my last monkey. (Well, that and sushi. And sex. And cars. And guitars. But that's it.) I take it very seriously. Unfortunately, coffee makes you pee. Leaving the house with a full thermos doesn't work very well for me because it just guarantees I'll need to pee 100 miles down the road. But doppios (double espressos) work great. It's like legal speed. I'll pull into a Starbucks, get two doppios (yes, that's two double espressos), drink one immediately, and set the second one aside for later. They seem to work just as well cold. The number of doppio cups that accumulated in the truck by the end of last week's 2100 mile round trip from Boston to Rockford IL was astonishing.

And Speaking of Peeing... Even though the rest stops can be whittled down to 10 or 15 minutes, when you do four of them on a long drive, you add an hour, and each time you stop, on the GPS, you see your projected arrival time tick forward, receding before you like the water in front of thirsty Tantalus. JR told me that just about every truck driver has a pee bottle in the cab. Last year I had a kidney stone removed, as as part of the post-op recovery, they gave me an actual medical pee bottle with an angled throat and a snap-tight lid. I took the bottle with me on this last road trip. I can report to you, my dutiful readers, that I can cross "pee in a bottle while driving" off my bucket list (I suppose I could've killed two birds with one stone and just peed in the bucket itself). It works, sort of, because the seating position in a truck is fairly upright. Even so, one has to pay careful attention to position, gravity, and, shall we say, the angle of the dangle. It's difficult to imagine this working in a low car like a 911. And, to get anatomical for a moment, you're sitting on your prostate, so even if you feel like you really need to pee, you can't just turn on the tap. I found it necessary to rise up off the seat to get things to, uh, flow. And this doesn't happen immediately. So you've got your pants at your knees, this strategically-positioned bottle between your legs like a feedbag on a horse, and you put on your seat belt because, well, you feel so naked not having it on (note that you are in fact partially naked), and you think if something unexpected happens RIGHT NOW and I'm in an accident, do I want the stupider thing to be that I was trying to piss into a bottle or that I didn't have my seat belt on? So you put on your seat belt which makes you feel like even more of an idiot, and with the cruise control on and your feet on the floor, you try to lift yourself up off the seat for the perhaps the two minutes it takes to unkink your internal garden hose. Then you do the deed, all the time glancing down to make sure the angle of the dangle is correct and you're actually in the bottle and it's not overflowing and you're not peeing on the seat. Then a real truck drives by, and because his cab is about two feet higher than yours, he can clearly see what you're doing, he shoots you an utterly dismissive look, and you wonder if what they say about real truck drivers is true (I mean his rig is a lot bigger). Then you see a "Rest Area 5 Miles" sign and you feel like a total fucking idiot.

Remember what I said above about wearing the truck driver hat, and things like fumbling with the iPod causing the truck to swerve? All of that is true, and more. You can see that, all in all, it's far better to time things so you hit the rest area. You need to stop for fuel anyway, and even a 10-minute leg stretch works wonders.

Plus, if you use a pee bottle, you then have a bottle full of pee in the truck. I shall say no more.

Wait In The Toll Line? Are You JOKING? If you're addicted to the EZ Pass or FastLane tag in your car and wonder why the suckers you see in line at the toll booth don't just join the 21st century and get one, imagine how much of a necessity is is when towing a rig. You really don't want to have to jostle lanes and slow down and speed up any more than necessary. Plus, it's pretty easy to scrape the trailer when you have to pull through the slowpoke lane to grab a ticket or pay the bill. When I started driving the rig two years ago, I set up a separate FastLane account from my personal one (yes, I set it up; the company couldn't figure out how to do it) with a transponder for the truck and trailer, and a second one if I'm driving the truck a la carte. At the end of a job, I log onto the FastLane web site and print out the account transactions and include them in the expense report. Last year, this worked flawlessly. On the drive out to Rockford last week, the I-Zoom tolls in Indiana and the I-Pass gates in Illinois happily accepted the FastLane pass. Some of these were Mass Pike-style 5mph drive-throughs, some had the high-speed lanes where you keep left and don't even slow down, and some were old-school wait-for-the-gate-to-lift lanes. My one complaint was that the states should standardize which lanes are electronic. In some states it's keep left, in others it's keep right, and in some the electronic lanes are in the middle. Still, a small complaint.

But at some point early into the drive home, on an old-style gated lane, the gate would not lift, and the sign flashed a red warning indicating a problem with my pass. Fortunately there's a credit card slot for such situations. When it happened a second time, I knew I couldn't use the FastLane tag and was in for a long drive home. It turns out that the credit card I'd set the account up with had expired, and once the account was $100 in arrears, it disabled the pass. Live and learn. To add insult to injury, one machine in New York state ate my credit card and would not give it back. I had to sit there, in the truck, blocking the lane, while someone came out and opened up the machine.

How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm: We stressed-out citified Yankees forget how much of America is farmland, and it's not just Kansas and Nebraska. Driving west on I90 from Boston, through upstate NY, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, passing through Utica, Buffalo, Cleveland, Gary, and then Chicago, you'd expect it to be a tour of the rust belt. But it's not. It's farmland. Well, the stretch between Gary and Chicago is industrial, but even that was a pleasant surprise. I have vivid memories of driving this route in the late 70s with Maire Anne, and seeing the smog from the rubber plants in Gary from 50 miles away. It was like dusk in the middle of the day. And the smell. Some of the factories and plants are still there, and they're pumping something out the smokestacks, but it's a step change from 30 years ago. Anyone who doubts the efficacy of clean air legislation should take a time machine back to the late 70s, visit Gary, then see it now. But this stretch from Gary to Chicago is really just a brief interruption in the better part of a thousand miles of farmland.

And, Lastly, "Emergency Pull-Off" Area: Is there anyone else who finds these signs incredibly funny, or is it just my sophomoric sense of humor? I have not yet tried to use one, but I hope they at least have a picture of Jennifer Aniston somewhere. You know, as a pubic service.