Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Long Distance Solo Driving or Playing Chicken with Suicide

For many years now, I have been researching ways to dramatically increase your range of travel by avoiding sleep. As early as 1992, I attempted to drive from Port Huron to Tampa, nonstop solo. In 1999 or so, an ex-wife and I "rescued" a niece from Wyoming. Elkhart, IN to Caspar, WY and back in a weekend.

Recently, I have conducted extensive research while driving a semi and have concluded that it is possible to push yourself well beyond previously insurmountable limits. The key is to gently but continuously feed the body and mind while pressing ahead. This leads to the potential of driving great distances with reasonable safety. The corollary is that if something terrible did happen, you will either be so strung out on sugar and caffeine that you won't feel a thing or that you'll just be thankful that it's finally over.

The first critical supplies are a big sugary snack and a large energy drink. Energy Drinks have been popular for several years in the refrigerated section of your local convenience store or truckstop. A new alternative is Energy Coffee, a coffee brewed with the addition of the go-juice chemicals found in common energy drinks. Last night, I chose both.

The sugary snack should not be pure sugar like candy. This will tend to make you feel badly before the maximum benefits are achieved. I recommend something with flour and sugar, like Ding Dongs or Coconut Crunch Donettes. The strategy is to prompt a sugar buzz with the snack and then drink copious amounts of the Energy Drink so that it will kick in before the Sugar Crash which typically follows the Buzz.

Two more critical supplies are more caffeine drinks and carbs. It is important to continue to imbibe in some slightly milder caffeine drink. I chose Pepsi Max as it has ginseng as well. While consuming the caffeine, you should also eat something heavy in carbohydrates. Not too much pure sugar, but more snacks with flour and sugar; perhaps increasing the relative proportion of flour. Pretzels work well, but have little or no sugar. Something like Oreos is probably too much sugar. Choose oatmeal cookies or frosted animal cookies. If you are in the Plains States, look for Banana Planks, an banana flavored iced sugar cookie, par excellence! Last night, I had two.

Essentially, you are playing with your blood sugar levels. It is NOT recommended that you ask your Doctor or even mention this program. The key is to get to the point where you think you are about to get the shakes. Slack your intake slightly to prevent a full onset. Once you are starting to feel better, restart the program until you almost start to feel badly again.

If you get too far along and are feeling shaky or unwell, a bit of protein can help. It is important to avoid eating very much protein or anything greasy or with significant fat content. A small package of almonds or some beef jerky can help stem the tide. If you can combine a little bit of protein with more carbs, so much the better. Try a small package of peanut butter and cheese crackers or some honey roasted peanuts. In Illinois, pull into a rest area on the freeway or a toll plaza, and look for the Coconut Toffee Peanuts; Beernuts were never this good to you!!

It is important to avoid large amounts of protein, fat or grease. If you must, a c-store wedge sandwich will not do too much damage, but even the small prepackaged subs can slow you down. Take it from me, a McDouble with all that meat and cheese and grease, can make you practically narcoleptic. If you are pushing 36 or 40 hours awake, you will fall asleep in mid-stride half way back to your vehicle.

Protein and Grease, however, is the perfect way to end your run. The hardest thing to estimate is when to stop the program and wind yourself down. Typically, you will arrive, or decide to stop, abruptly. Perhaps it only seems abrupt because your brain is swimming in sugar and caffeine. When you are ready to stop, the solution is to seek out protein, fat and grease. Nothing beats a McDouble and fries with a Whole by-god-and-Texas Vitamin D milk. You will sleep like a baby.

My most important bit of advice is don't try this at home or anywhere else. In fact, forget I said anything.

PS: I arrived at my destination and got my truck in for service; 646 miles on 1.5 hours of sleep.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Zen and the Art of Egoless Driving, Lesson 3

Slow Down.

That's it . . . . just slow down.

OK, OK, I'll elaborate. I lived and commuted in Detroit for a few years. I've been there, done that, never got the t-shirt or, amazingly, a ticket. I did have to call for bail money once but that was completely unrelated to speed. Recently, I've spent 300,000 or so miles on the highways and byways. Not many of them in rush hour traffic but just enough. Enough hours in traffic in different places in the world that I can tell you that Detroit Drivers are the worst. In fact, there were only three times that I experienced anything worse than Detroit; all isolated incidents. Twice in Texas with a fatal accident somewhere ahead of me. And once in New York City, I was halfway from Long Island City to the George Washington Bridge when a Yankees game let out. It wasn't just the traffic jam, everyone in New York thinks they're special and were fighting like lemmings to get to the front of the line. One guy got so excited, he changed lanes without looking and rammed his sexy foreign car into the dollies _underneath_ a semi trailer. Luckily, not mine.

My theory is that Detroit is the worst because, up until recently anyway, nearly everyone in town was building cars or had a link somewhere in the supply chain. Therefore, Detroiters think of cars as toys. Everybody zips along in Detroit Rush Hour - 75 mph [at least] and 8 inches apart. OK, in Winter it was only 73 mph and people are playing it safe - 9.5" apart. Detroit Rush Hour was one of the first virtual reality arcade games. Everyone was playing. You're watching all your mirrors and scanning the horizon, vectoring the cars around you and strategizing. Some guy is barely in front of you and you slip in right behind him. You're running so close together, the heat from your radiator is fogging the chrome on his rear bumper.

Once we have entered the fray, we have to win. We'll cut in and out of lanes, pass on the right, jam the gears and the gas, brake, jam, brake, jam. Hell, we'd consider passing on the shoulder if it meant getting the jump on those out-of-state-plates driving the speed limit! When the inevitable happens and we get bogged down, we are livid. DON'T THEY UNDERSTAND?!?! I'VE GOT TO GET TO . . . to where? To work? You aren't nearly that enthusiastic about your job once you've made into the office parking lot.

Lets assume you have a 45 mile commute. If you drive 75 mph, it will take you 36 minutes to go 45 miles. If you drive 57 mph, it takes you a little more than 47 minutes. Is all that stress worth getting to the office 11 minutes sooner?

What about a 90 mile commute? Maybe you're in management and you live out in some verdant, peaceful suburb. If you drive 75 mph, it will take 72 minutes. Driving 57 will stretch that to almost 95 minutes! If you're in management, you are definitely going to tell me that those 23 minutes are valuable. Read on.

Now, some of you readers are on to me already. There is a problem in my examples, though I tried to word them carefully. The times are only valid if you could leap into your car while it was already doing 75 mph! And you'd have to average 75 mph for the entire trip. If there are more than a couple stop signs, or the inevitable traffic jam along the way, your average speed will plummet. Every time you slow down and/or stop, you are losing most of the 11 minutes you gained in the example. You're spending lots of driving time at the same speed as someone who is only driving 57 mph on the highway. Take it from someone who gets paid by the mile, just stopping to hit the john will spoil your average speed for hours.

So, back when I thought I was done, I suggested you slow down. Not only will your fuel consumption and maintenance costs go down, you will gain an even more precious commodity. . . peace. Tranquility. You can laugh at all the stress puppies flying by you on the highway. You can smile at those slow out-of-towners. You can get to work in a decent mood and smile at your coworkers. You will become unbound. Think of smiling at the threshold of your house in the evening. Imagine hanging out with your family without that lump in your gut; without the crispy edges around your burned out life.

There is something else that happens to me regularly out here on the road. Someone will fly by me on the way. At the next stop sign, rest area or truckstop, that same vehicle is right there in front of me; just pulling into a parking space when I enter the lot. Imagine your coworkers stomping in to the building, cussing under their breath and swallowing all that pressure. If you take the slow lane, you'll likely be sauntering in right behind them. Except you'll be smiling, noticing that the landscape guys planted flowers. You'll remember someone's birthday as you walk by their desk. You'll be happy enough to just start your day instead of heading for the coffee machine to bitch about traffic. Imagine how you'll feel that night at home. You'll notice how beautiful your family is, how lucky you are. You'll be living a life instead of fuming about traffic.

So what's it going to be? Five minutes sooner to a job you don't really like anyway? Or the slow lane, smiles and peace? Well, no stress on the road. You're still just a hamster in the wheel once you get to work.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

It Ain't The Black Cats . . .

I always thought that the Black Cats were the ones to avoid, but a run-in with a spooky old tiger cat last week changed my mind. There is only one approved place for me to get fuel in Nebraska. About 5 miles before the exit, I called dispatch to find out where I was picking up my back haul. I only needed fuel if I was going further West. Sure enough my back haul was three and half hours further west. I pulled off the highway.

For a hundred miles on either side of Council Bluffs, Iowa, Interstate 80 runs along that bluff. To the North, the county roads roll down to the darkness of the prairie. The nearly pure blackness makes you wonder if anything exists in that direction. It looks like outer space, an occasional street light or the glow of mercury vapor around a farmhouse as the stars and moon. To the South, the roads crown away from the highway toward the crest of the bluff.

Aurora, Nebraska is North of Interstate 80. The glow of the town confirms there is more than just empty space out that way. I turn and cross the highway toward the shiny new truckstop and an abandoned gas station; the only obvious things South of the highway. Off in the dark, silhouetted against the line where the night meets the bluff, a lone tree and a farmhouse ooze into view.

As I was running my card through the fuel island pump, I saw a cat walk by between my drive tires and the trailer dolly. She was an ancient looking, but well fed tiger cat; ragged from life on the prairie. She wasn't fat, but you could tell there were a lot of missing field mice nearby. In the strange light of the truckstop, a layer of grey fur seemed to fuzz out over the top of her tiger coat. She just sauntered on by like she owned the place, the hard won aloofness of a farm cat. I don't remember ever seeing an animal, let alone a cat, just wandering around a truckstop. Sure some truckers have pets, especially dogs, but they don't wander around.

As I stuck the fuel nozzle in my driver's side tank, the nozzle just hung in the tank balanced by the weight of the hose and caught against the inside of the tank neck. Depending on the truckstop, this arrangement was precarious. It occurred to me that I should get a couple python straps to hold the fuel hoses down on each step. I roamed over to the passenger side and started fueling the other tank. I grabbed a squeegee and started doing my windows; the windshield, the side window, side mirror, west coast mirror, headlamp lens and then all of the same on the other side.

As I was doing the driver's side mirror, I bumped the precarious hose with the long handle of the squeegee. The nozzle flipped out, shot diesel fuel straight up in the air, all over my leg and the side of the truck. The nozzle hit the ground and before I could grab it, both my feet were soaked. With a grunt, I poked the nozzle back in the tank.

I finished the windows and the fueling, checked the oil, the belts, the antifreeze and the fluids. Instead of pulling up right away, I slipped into the sleeper and changed my pants. The older pair of jeans I packed as a back up had a 1.5" long spot on one of the 'sit down wrinkles' that had worn through. As I hurried to stick my foot into that leg, a toe caught the spot and tore it out to a 4" gaping hole. Another grunt and I tucked in my shirt, did my belt up and put my boots back on. I noticed that my phone was missing from the holster. I felt around in the blanket on top of my bunk, but couldn't find it. I looked around casually. Its got to be in here somewhere.

I pulled from the fuel island up to the pay line and went inside to use the john. On the way, I pitched the oiled up jeans in the trash. Back out in the truck, I looked more for my phone. The holster is handy but is old and worn and loose. I was starting to get worried and confused. After calling my dispatcher, I pulled off the highway, fueled my truck and changed my pants. I hadn't gone anywhere else. The phone had to be in the truck. I pulled the blankets and sheets off the bed and went through a duffel and a book bag. Nothing. I sent a message into dispatch asking them to call my phone. After several minutes, I hadn't heard anything from them. I looked around outside again.

Now what? I'm in the middle of Nebraska, in the middle of the night, on a schedule, and I can't find my phone. There must be a way to call a phone from the web. I broke out my laptop and googled "ring my phone" and, of course, got a hit. A bored computer geek put up a site that will help find your phone.!! If you use it, send him a beer via Paypal, I did. I did not, however, hear my phone ring. The phone was either completely gone or my web connection was so slow that it didn't work.

As a last resort, I went inside and asked the Fuel Desk Lady if anyone had turned in a beat up old cellphone. Nope, but she offered to call the phone so I might hear it. I also told her that I had spilled some fuel and that they might want to put some kitty litter on it. My head down, I shuffled out to the truck and never heard her call. How could a phone just disappear? I had 150 more miles to drive and a 06:15 appointment. I just couldn't wait any longer for the phone to turn up.

My phone was beat up and old. I had been wanting to get a new one. I had also wanted to get all my phone numbers out of the old and into the new one. This is not how I wanted my relationship with this phone to end, but it was time to go. I had just enough time to get to North Platte. One last walk around and I'll head out. Luckily, no one had pulled in behind me to fuel. The place wasn't that busy in the middle of the night.

I walked back to the fuel pump where I had spilled the fuel. My old greasy jeans were in the trash. It was beyond unlikely that the phone fell out of the holster and into a pocket, but I checked anyway. I pulled the jeans out of the trash barrel, felt all the pockets, then stuck my hand in all the pockets. No phone. That's it. I'll need a new phone when I get home.

The trash barrel was on the passenger side of the island I pulled through. I slowly turned around; just pissed off that I'd lost my phone. My eyes scanned around as I started to amble back to the truck. The maintenance guy hadn't yet put any kitty litter on my puddle of diesel. I didn't set the phone on top of the pump. I hadn't set it on the curb.

But off to my left, on the dusty prairie truckstop concrete, sat my little silver phone. I couldn't remember going all the way over to where the phone was. There wasn't any reason to go that far. To fuel, do my windows and check fluid levels, all my work was around the front bumper of my truck. The phone sat well behind where my drive axles were, out of the main aisle. I know the sound of my phone skittering over the cement, my holster sucks. I heard no skittering. The phone mysteriously got from my hip to the ground 15 or 20 feet beyond where I had been. It was clean; hadn't gotten into the fuel spill. And there were five missed calls; two from and three from the fuel desk. All that ringing and I had never heard it.

The early Spring fog swirled at me as a gust of wind rushed across the lot. The phone sat right where that cat had walked through! Had she grabbed it and hid it right there in plain sight? Or had she been holding it all this time, laughing at my frantic search? I didn't know what she'd been up to, but I had my phone back.

I climbed up in the cab, updated my logbook and hit the road. It was good to be rolling again. Hell, it was good to have a phone again. I got back across the bridge and down the entrance ramp to the highway, when my eyes starting watering. Blinking and sputtering, coughing with a thick feeling in the back of my throat, I lurched the truck on to the shoulder. What had that spooky cat done to me!?! After a pause, I realized I had changed my pants after the fuel spill but put the soaked boots back on. Running the heater lightly in the cool damp night air, the duct at my feet was blowing all the diesel fumes off my boots and up into my face. The truck was filling quickly with the thick acrid stench of raw diesel.

I can't tell you why, but I was traveling with two pair of boots that week. One is less comfortable but waterproof; the other expensive but not dry. Ironically, the good ones were now soaked in diesel fuel. Perhaps they are waterproof now. I could not store the oil soaked boots inside, so with my spare, uncomfortable boots on, I strapped them to the catwalk behind the sleeper. Catwalk . . . huh. Damn, cats.

The Cop and the Corn

I’ve written before about the DOT regulated hours I have to track as a truck driver. I can drive for eleven hours a day, but once I start,...