I gained a great respect, and a different perspective, of the truckers themselves. I was your average ignorant four-wheeler when it came to trucks, their drivers or their lifestyle before I started driving a big rig myself.
I discovered drivers are grossly underrated, stereotyped and deserve more respect from the general public for their skill, humour and poorly paid professionalism. There certainly are any number of bad eggs but there are just as many, if not more, bad eggs who are lawyers, doctors or Wall Street moguls.
Much to my surprise trucking is a total equality job. I was trained the same, paid the same and treated the same as my male counterparts. When I pulled in to truck stop to refuel and opened the hood to check the insides of the engine - you have to learn every single part of a truck engine and name them ALL to pass the driver's license - or I crawled beneath the trailer to check couplings, other drivers never offered to help "the little woman." They would usually just say something like, "Good morning driver, which way you headed?"
So, to all the ladies, especially the little girls who got so excited, who cheered and waved encouragement when they saw a woman driver - you can go and have one of the great adventures of your life. It's just fine.
When I say we saw the country, I mean we saw it. Over the 2 years we travelled more than 500,000 miles, on interstates and small country roads, through all kinds of weather and traffic. We trundled through Texas - does it ever end? We admired the Teutonic neatness of Wisconsin. The tangled spaghetti of freeways in St. Louis, Mo., got us confused and the sheer cliff one descends near Laramie, Wyo., was nerve wrecking. And that long, long steep climb down in Montana. It's so steep you have to stop at the top and check your brakes and read the instructions for descent. There is the Grapevine in Southern California truckers talk about in hushed tones. And the "She Bear" who terrified us all with her strictness in the towering mountain passes through the Cascades in Oregon. From the raw vast beauty of North Eastern Oregon and Washington State, the Colorado River Gorge, the beauty of the desert in Nevada to the flat emptiness of Oklahoma, on to the densely crowded East Coast or over the bridge at Detroit in to Canada - we discovered America.
But, I am getting ahead of myself ... before all this we had to get our commercial drivers licenses. We passed the first company driving test in Fontana, Calif., and in November we went to Bradford in upstate Pennsylvania on the border of New York near the Great Lakes to drive with our training engineer This was to prepare us for life on the road and to ensure we passed our CDL. We arrived thinking it would be the usual orange company truck but discovered our engineer had the biggest truck in the fleet - an old fashioned monster. The green meanie.
We drove her through tiny Amish settlements with buggies all around us, had to get through tiny little towns with narrow streets and cope with tiny East Coast rest stops. All in the green monster. I nearly had heart failure on an hourly basis. She was huge but remarkably easy to drive once we got used to her.
Our trainer, Lou, was a delightful soul with a quiet sense of humour. If I were to draw a cartoon or a caricature of a trucker - he would fit the bill. Shortish, large stomach, grey beard who always wore denim bib dungarees and a baseball hat. He told tall tales with panache and we enjoyed being with him.
Bradford is a small town 'famous' as the home of the factory of Zippo lighters. To relax on our day off we toured the factory and had a good meal in a delightful restaurant in a converted Carnegie library. We only had the one day off in the 3 weeks. Other than those 2 places I have no recollection of Bradford at all. Must have been the fear factor!
We headed home to Nevada to do our final state test. And we both failed. We passed the eye test, we passed the naming every part of the engine test but no one had taught us how to serpentine backwards without hitting a single cone. It's required in only 2 states out of the whole 50 - Nevada and Arizona. So back to Fontana in Southern California we went and a couple of our old instructors worked with us to learn how to do this. They had never done it either! But they enjoyed the challenge as a break from their new students.
One night during our time working this problem out, the instructors decided it would be fun to go practice at the LAPD skid pad. "It's really good experience for you," they happily said. If you've ever been in a bad skid on the road or on a skid pad in a car, you know how scary it is. I can testify that in a rig it's the most terrifying thing. We had to do it 3 times. In a rig.
You drive up to the pad and launch on to it, you have to be doing 40 mph, then whenever the instructor feels like it he hits the hidden brake by his seat. And off you go in a horrid skid. The first time out I screamed so loud they must've heard me in Phoenix. The crowd of trainees and instructors watching were falling about laughing, including Lee. He didn't laugh so much when he hit the skid pad next. The second time was better. By the third tride on the skid pad I was enjoying myself. That's when I thought, "I can do this." Or maybe it just proved I am certifiable.
We went back to Nevada, took the test again and both passed. The company rewarded us with a nearly new Freightliner to propel across the vastness of the USA.
Our first instructor, John, had told us, "Your training engineer and I can teach you 'til we're blue in the face, but believe me, nothing will teach you like your first couple of weeks on the road alone."
Boy, was he ever right!