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October 2011 From The Back 40

Posted in Features on October 1, 2011
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This is a “trailers and towing” special issue, and it has been the catalyst for me to reflect on the story of this dude who towed trailers for a living before he landed a job at a magazine.

Like many of you, he was towing trailers soon after the DMV handed him a driver’s license. From his family’s Jayco camper to a utility trailer carrying dirt bikes, he grew up dragging trailers around. In the early ’90s he was working for a company that asked him to get a Class A Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) so he could drive one of their semi-trucks. He thought that being paid to drive around all day was the best idea ever, and his experience towing would make learning to drive a semi a piece of cake. Little did he know that pulling a semi-trailer is far different than pulling a camper. He spent hours in a warehouse parking lot learning the nuances of backing a semi and 45-foot van trailer. Like anything else done repetitively, the dude eventually got the basic hang of it and didn’t even smash into anything in the process. On-road training was under the tutelage of a chain-smoking, ex-OTR (over the road) trucker who found no greater joy in life than to while away the hours relating his experiences acquired during a zillion years of hauling hazardous material. Apparently, the grizzled old gear-jammer knew what he was talking about, because after a stringent test the DMV issued the dude a CDL complete with endorsements for tankers, double/triple trailers, and hazardous materials. Yep, he was towin’ for a livin’.

It didn’t take long for the dude to learn several things, including the fact that not all loading docks are created equal. Some have dock plates that protrude, and these will instantly spear and destroy a semi-trailer roll-up door if it’s not raised prior to backing in the dock. This led to Lesson #2, which is to always look for yourself to determine the dock plate type and not take someone else’s word for it. He also found that a rookie driver trying to back a long semi into a super-tight, offset, dark, in-warehouse loading dock is the greatest entertainment known to dock workers, and they’ll flock to watch the slow-motion chaos.

The first snowfall was terrifying for the rookie driver. Having never driven a semi loaded with 45,000 pounds of coiled steel on snow and ice, he was clueless about how the truck would react during something as simple as a right-angle, low-speed turn in town. That was the day he learned to load the trailer so more weight was on the tractor’s steer tires. After unloading the trailer he then found that an empty truck’s driving characteristics in snow changed yet again. And not for the better. By the end of the first day in snow, the dude had learned a number of lessons, including the significant benefits of light steering and braking inputs. The rookie driver, who was also a wheeler, was surprised to find that after his first day of driving an eighteen-wheeler in snow and ice, he was as puckered as he was the first time he drove the chilling switchbacks on the legendary Black Bear Road in Colorado.

As the months turned to years, the dude got more experienced. Driving the semi became second nature, and he could quickly back the rig into even the most complex dock. He drove in all kinds of weather, primarily because he had to. There were times when the fog was so thick, the tail of the trailer wasn’t visible in the rearview mirrors. Several times, whiteouts in snowstorms reduced forward progress to a crawl as he tried to find landmarks to keep the rig on the road. More than once his rig became stuck in the snow in recessed loading docks, and this meant shoveling and salting and using the axle diff-lock to free the truck. He dealt with everything from ice in the air-brake lines to gelled diesel fuel, to tire blowouts. But after years of driving, the dude had learned to “feel” the semi, in the same way he could feel his Wrangler TJ on the trail.

Seven years after earning that CDL, the dude’s last run for that company was in hilly terrain, which is something the flatlander had never driven before. He was faced with new challenges and had to adapt. This is when it occurred to him that no matter what you think you know, there’s always something new to be learned. And that’s the way it is with towing.

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