Despite having spent a couple months riding along with my boyfriend in his semi truck, I had very little idea at the outset of my own training what I was getting into with trucking. The following are a collection of stories from my first month in training, then over the road on my own.
My first day in orientation I admitted to my recruiter that I was nervous to start driving. Fresh out of my four week CDL school with a freshly printed Class A CDL in my wallet, I was starting to feel like maybe this was something I could do. Driving a truck is nothing like driving a car or even a pick-up. I had just spent a month learning an entirely new skill, and I hadn’t realized how difficult it would be beforehand.
Even so, I had done well in school and I was getting more comfortable behind the wheel every time I drove. That first day with my company I had to take a road test. In a new truck with a new instructor in a new town, I realized that day with a profound and painful clarity how far I still had to go before I could call myself a truck driver. It did not go well.
Driving a big truck is incredibly dangerous. There are a million things to pay attention to that you don’t have to in a car, it requires your full attention and concentration for long stretches of time. Not once had I been in the driver’s seat and not been sweating through my shirt. Mind you, this was winter in Indiana.
“Well,” my recruiter sighed, her face serious, “The day you’re not at least a little bit scared to drive a truck is the day you need to step out of that truck.”
Complacency causes accidents. Driving a truck requires some respect for the power and responsibility in your hands.
She continued, “At the end of the day you’re driving an 80,000 pound killing machine.”
It was probably the most reassuring thing she could have said to me.
On that road test I got out to my second right hand turn. I’d been doing pretty well, staying center in my lane and watching my mirrors. I needed to start slowing down early for turns and stop lights, I knew that but my reaction times were still geared for driving a car, and mistakes were inevitable.
I was trying to downshift another gear for the turn, but I was already in the intersection. I got the truck out of gear, then forgot what gear I had just been in (there are 10 of them in most trucks, it’s not hard to do) and couldn’t get it back in. I lost my cool, cut the wheel way too sharp and ran my trailer up on a curb, just about taking out a pole with the back end.
I cleared the intersection and stopped in the middle of the road, to get the truck back in a low gear. I took a deep breath, then continued on because I couldn’t hold up traffic to have a meltdown.
“It’s a good thing this isn’t really a test,” I told the inspector. He agreed, but we didn’t complete a couple portions of the road test after that. He said I wasn’t ready. I said I was just fine with that.
“You’re gonna make mistakes.” My 72 year old, trucking school instructor told me in his classic, Hoosier drawl. “This is something you’ve never done before, driving a big truck takes some getting used to.”
After I completed my school, company training program, and was finally in my own truck, I began to realize how true his words were. I don’t want to say that I thought learning to drive would be easy at the outset. I certainly didn’t understand how hard it was going to be though. I’ve done a lot of things that I considered to be challenging in my life, but I’ve always been a quick learner. If I didn’t know that myself, I was told so by many people throughout the learning process that I was progressing very quickly.
That being said, trucking is stressful. By the end of my first week on my own truck, I had developed an itchy and flaky rash on my elbows – stress induced. I had become painfully and frighteningly aware that I was not prepared to be alone out on the road. And I made plenty of mistakes.
“Shit,” I swore as a red warning popped up on the dash display, COLLISION WARNING. I bumped into the low post trying to make a right turn too tightly out of a gravel lot. I backed up, got out and found no damage to the truck or post, backed up some more, and took a different route out of the lot.
“Shit,” I swore as I stood beside John, my boyfriend and driving partner.
“Where did that happen?” He asked, indicating the black rings on the steer and drive tires. “You rubbed up against something.
“Huh,” I said. I had no idea what I had come that close to. Was I paying close enough attention? I needed to be more careful…
“Shit,” I swore as the GPS screwed up trying to get me around Atlanta, Georgia. The interstate system seemed to have been updated since the GPS had, and despite my best efforts I ended up on some incredibly narrow streets full of tight turns, cyclists, and a GPS still telling me to make a U-turn in the middle of the road (not possible in a semi, fyi.) I woke up John from sleeping in the bunk for help. When we got back on the Interstate I told him how nervous the situation had made me.
“Well, no one died, we didn’t end up on the news. You could have done a lot worse.”
And that’s what made me so nervous. Every time I make a mistake, it reminds me of just how much risk there is of making a worse one eventually.
In school I began to realize the kinds of people that often are attracted to truck driving. John had explained this to me in various ways previously, but I didn’t fully understand it till I started meeting people one on one and hearing their stories.
One of my instructors came to trucking after he retired from his manufacturing job. His wife got sick after her daughter died at the age of 30 and he needed to go back to work to pay the medical bills. So he started trucking. After his wife was too sick for him to be gone all the time, he started teaching to stay close to her.
Another instructor was a retired police officer. She left because she wasn’t making enough money. She tried owning and operating a bar, and that turned out to also not be lucrative enough (not to mention some shady characters and an incident where she checked up on one of her regulars and found him dead in his home). So she came to trucking and again encountered challenges in the form of her friend she was team driving who rolled the truck and almost got her killed while she was sleeping in the bunk. She came to teaching after that, and I have to wonder after seeing her interactions with a former trucking student who was high at the time if she doesn’t attract some of her misfortune simply by being too kind and inviting. Some people can’t be helped, at least not if they aren’t willing to help themselves.
One student I met had been laid off from his supervisor job of 30 years because the company moved manufacturing to Mexico. He made pretty good money, but he couldn’t find another job in the area that would pay him anything close to what he made before. So, with some government assistance due to his situation, he decided to get his CDL so he had some other skill in his back pocket. He said he was old enough that he could have retired, but his mortgage wouldn’t allow it.
Another student worked at Lowe’s for 10 years, and they had never given him a raise and continually passed him over for a promotion. Between him, his wife, his 2 year old, and the baby on the way, his household qualified as being below the poverty line since he made less than $30,000 a year. He also was getting government assistance to go to school for his CDL, he hoped having that skill would allow him to get a better job and be able to support his family better.
I’ve heard stories second hand about drivers who have been trucking for so long, they want to leave and try something different. Often they came to the job young, with no other skills, and they would be leaving with no other skills than knowing how to drive a truck. So they keep driving. Being a truck driver is classified as “unskilled labor,” and many feel like they have no other options. Plus, to make the best wages you have to stay in the industry for a while. If you’ve been driving for 10 years, you’re probably making pretty good money. To change careers would be to take a serious hit to your income. Even if you wanted to leave, where would you go?
I didn’t know how I fit into the program. In fact, I knew that I didn’t at all. Not only are there very few women in trucking, there are next to none in their early 20’s with a college degree in Anthropology and a penchant for the outdoors. The one thing I seemed to have in common with every driver out here though – we chose this lifestyle because it seemed to be the best option given our circumstances.
My first day in training I worked an 11 hour day, my second day was a 12 hour day. These are just baby steps up to the 14 hour days I would work regularly as a truck driver. However, before I could get into my own truck (or rather, the truck I would team drive with John), I had to spend a month or more with a trainer. Typically this is a person who has been driving a long time. They can teach you how company policies, procedures for paperwork, routing, and, most importantly, how to drive a truck in the real world – you get very little practical experience in trucking school.
In reality, your trainer may or may not fit that bill. Some people get put with a trainer who have no more than a year’s experience themselves (this really depends on the kind of company you sign up with). When you’re talking about trucking, a year is nothing. I was fortunate enough to be given an experienced trainer who happened to be a good teacher. After the first day I felt confident he would be able to teach me what I needed to know.
You hear a lot of horror stories about training. The reality is, you are being put into a truck for 4-6 weeks with a complete stranger, spending long hours with them in what can be high pressure situations. It’s not a great recipe. I think that is the main reason that you will find it difficult to find someone who has had a good training experience. Personalities don’t always mix. I found this to be the case with my trainer.
While I was fully confident that he had the skills to teach me, I learned right away that he had a strong personality. Within minutes of taking off in the truck with him for the first time I realized – and told him – that we probably disagreed on a lot of things. Simply put, he is a 68 year old man from rural Indiana, I’m a 23 year old woman from Seattle – you can probably do the math.
The first couple days we had some conversations, hashing out where we stood on things. I did my best to listen. I have always had strong opinions, but I have learned over time that expressing them isn’t always the best way to approach difficult conversations. Sometimes silence is the best way to make your opinions known and my trainer didn’t have to work hard to understand that I found many of his opinions to be abhorrent.
Sometimes we did talk about where we stood on things. We talked a lot about renewable energy. We talked a lot about health care. I explained to him the T in LGBT, and he said, “Huh, I’ve never had it told to me like that before.” I found this to be a very moderate response after he had blustered on about it being gross for “pervert men” to be using women’s restrooms. It reaffirmed for me that conversation is the best way to bridge certain gaps.
After a couple days though I realized that spending all my time listening to opinions which I found intolerable at times was not going to be the best way to get through my training period. Long days were made longer trying to stay calm and collected in the face of frustration. I became more passive. I asked questions about how to drive the truck, and I focused on getting better and better at my shifting, my turns, my backing, making small improvements.
Ultimately I was only in training for 3 weeks as opposed to the average 6 weeks. I attributed this to a few factors.
- I would be team driving and not fully solo at the end of training.
- I am a quick learner in the best of times, and under the circumstances, I applied myself to completing training as quickly as possible.
- The last two weeks of my training was when the Covid-19 outbreak began. I chose to be honest with my trainer, telling him that I was very concerned about the potential for state borders to close, or for us to get quarantined somewhere far away from my boyfriend who was my only source of familiarity within 2,000+ miles. I know he advocated for a shorter training period for me with my company. It demonstrated to me that putting aside differences and focusing on people, the human aspects of relationships, bridging gaps rather than building walls, can get you much further than thinking about others as distant islands, unidentifiable and unreachable.
Almost two months later I made a delivery to the same factory I had been going to that first day out when I screwed up on the right hand turn. While two months of experience didn’t make me an expert driver by any means, I had come a long way in that time. I nailed the turn this time, even at 4 am while John slept in the back of the cab and I could barely see the tail end of my trailer coming around the corner.
I realized what I had failed to notice the first time. The corner was very tight. Even under the best circumstances it was one you had to be careful on, and in hindsight I thought that I hadn’t done as badly as I thought I had at the time. No one got hurt and no equipment got damaged.
Still, I had come a long way.
We were heading down I-85 in South Carolina, bound for Calhoun, Georgia. Almost as soon as I started seeing signs for Atlanta, a car trying to merge onto the freeway caught my attention. There was room in the center lane and I could have gotten over, but the red sedan had a long ontramp and he looked like he was picking up speed. I stayed put, remembering that my trainer told me that the most likely time to get in an accident on the highway is during lane changes, and they ought to be minimized as much as possible.
The car slowed down, then sped up again. A second later the ramp had run out and he still hadn’t decided what to do, I was out of time to move over. He drove onto the wide shoulder, not a big deal, and there was little other traffic around, but he was immediately on his horn and slamming on his brakes.
I swore (no surprises) but held the truck steady and watched him in my mirrors merge onto the interstate behind me, then come up alongside me on my left side. As he neared the drivers side door he began laying on the horn again and I look to my left in time to see a slim girl in the passenger seat, window open to let in the warm spring air and socked feet up on the dash. I see the arm reaching across her and I see the gun, pointing at me.
He canted it twice, as if to say, “I could do it you know.”
My heart dropped and my throat closed.
He could do it.
Then the car was pulling ahead and John was calling highway patrol as I decreased my speed to put some distance between myself and the red car speeding ahead. I maintained control.
Miles later I was still thinking about the split second incident. I thought about his girlfriend, carefree on a warm spring day in the passenger seat. Was she impressed by the egotistical display? Was that moment as unexpected to her as it was to me? I thought about him, had he shot someone before? With that gun? Would he have cared if he actually did? I thought about my own actions. If I had made room for him and avoided the conflict, nothing would have ever happened. Did that make it my fault that I was not as gracious as I could have been on the road?
Questions I had no answers for.
I could clearly see the man standing in front of me, face to face, although I never saw what he looked like. I could picture his sneer, the sort of self-centered, immature face of someone who chooses to live their life in such a precarious fashion, who can’t handle even the most minor of confrontations with grace and dignity.
You lost something. I would tell him. I don’t know what. I hope you find it someday.
I started driving at 1 am the next morning. Around 2 I was watching a lightning storm moving across the flat, Indiana horizon. I couldn’t tell how far away it was, but it was beautiful and strange to watch in those twilight zone hours of the morning. I felt sure it was much further away than it looked anyhow.
I couldn’t hear the sound of the thunder over the engine though, so I drove straight into the storm, eyes wide open, but not realizing I would encounter the weather head on until the first raindrops hit my windshield. Soon the lightning was so close I could see the glare reflecting off the wet pavement rapidly disappearing under my wheels. As the rain fell thick and fast I drove up onto a tall overpass, looking left and right I realized that, flat as Indiana is, I was suddenly the tallest thing in the immediate vicinity.
Can you get struck by lightning in a moving vehicle? Surely the tires act as insulators… I didn’t know.
I drove on and kept the truck steady as the flashes continued for hours. I wasn’t concerned. The lightning scared me a little bit, so I decided it was not yet my day to step out of the truck.