A week of driving

We are just passing through the height of the melon season, with more being hauled in from the fields than can be sold through the usual channels, so the Burkholders have asked me to haul a load of melons three times weekly to the produce auction in Crab Orchard, about fifty miles away. At the auction growers bring in their produce, divide it into lots, and take whatever price the auction can sell it for; the good news is that you will almost always sell your stuff, the bad news is that you can’t count on a good (or even predictable) price.

So Monday morning I was at 501 at 7:30am. It took about an hour to get the melons loaded, then 75 minutes to drive them to Crab Orchard, then 45 minutes until they were unloaded, and another 75 minutes home, with a stop close to home to refuel. I know all that because I took a theme book and began keeping a log of my travels. Looking over the log, I realize that there is a lot of time during a trip where I am waiting, and rather than just watching bins being loaded and unloaded I should probably redeem the time by taking reading material along.

Monday afternoon was uneventful, and at 5pm I was about to put burgers on the grill for supper when the phone rang. It was Daniel Burkholder, calling to see if I would be able to drive a load of canteloupes down to Denny Holman in Chattanooga that night. I would have said yes in any case, but I especially wanted to make it up to Denny for the problems with the last delivery, so I said I would. After I hung up, Debbie reminded me that I was supposed to be driving produce to Lexington for Jerome the next morning, but surely wouldn’t be back in time. Ooops. So I called Daniel back to tell him I needed to talk to Jerome first, and then called Jerome, who said that the delivery could happen later in the day if necessary. So I called Daniel back again and told him I was on my way.

The family scrambled to help me gather food for the trip—water bottles, triscuits, cherry tomatoes, cheese, and peanuts, all packed into an insulated lunchbag. It didn’t take me twenty minutes from the first call until I was on the road. I went to 501 Produce where they loaded two bins, and then to South Fork Produce where they filled the truck with another fourteen bins. By 7pm I was on my way to Chattanooga.

I’d say that these things tend to happen on the hottest possible days, but lately all the days have been hot, and even at 7pm the temperature was about one hundred degrees, very unusual for this part of the state. So I was watching the temperature gauge on the truck very closely. And of all the ups and downs ahead of me on the trip, the worst hill of all was the very first one, about three miles down the road. On that one I was crawling up the hill carrying 12,000 pounds of melons at 5mph, with the gauge climbing and the heat on full blast in the cab. At the top of the hill I breathed a sigh of relief, but as I drove on more level ground the engine wasn’t cooling very much, so I found a place to pull over and idle for a few minutes. Fortunately now that the cooling system is fixed the engine will cool quickly when not under load, and so I was moving again soon enough.

This time I stuck to US 27 all the way to I-40 in Tennessee, and it turned out to be a much gentler route than I-75, at least in terms of grades. There were long climbs, of course, but nothing to compare to the interstate, and since the traffic is moving more slowely in general on a two-lane highway with climbing lanes, cars weren’t as surprised to encounter a truck doing 25mph in the climbing lane and it felt much less dangerous. The engine would occasionally get hot as I climbed, but nothing dangerous, and I gradually learned more about how to drive the truck so as to minimize that. But still I kept the heat on in the cab all the way there.

The trip down turned out to be almost exactly five hours, so I pulled into the agreed-upon meeting place at midnight. Denny had other deliveries to attend to that night, so he sent a schoolteacher friend along to take me to the unloading point and unload the truck. It was a bit weird being at a vacant produce station after midnight, spending ninety minutes watching a fellow use a forklift to unload the truck with only headlights for illumination. I should have used the time to catch a nap, but the fellow was rusty in his forklift skills and needed me to be a second set of eyes. At 1:30am he finished up, gave me the cash to take back to the sellers, and I headed back north.

At this point I’m figuring four plus hours to get home, maybe by 6am if I drove straight through, something I’m in no shape to do. But as I drive along I’m not finding any good locations to pull the truck off the road for a nap, either. At 3am I stopped at a Pilot truck stop on I-40 for fuel, as well as to walk around and get an orange juice; I’m not dangerously drowsy yet, and I’m getting closer to US 27 where I’m more likely to find a place to pull over. Or so I thought, anyway; I drove for an hour on US 27 without any luck, but then suddenly found a spot where there was a very wide section of shoulder where various trucks and heavy equipment had been parked. I pulled off as well, then did my best to stretch out on the cab seat and sleep.

After an hour I had gotten what benefit I could from that, so I headed on again at 5am. The twisty mountain road was enough to keep me awake for awhile, but I was still very drowsy, and after an hour I saw another good spot to pull off and so I did. This time I just sat upright at the wheel and napped, and it turned out to be more comfortable; I’ll probably add a small pillow to the standard equipment to make that a bit easier. Only 45 minutes later I was awake again, and feeling much better. I drove on, got home at 8am, said hello, went up to the bedroom, set the alarm for 10am, and napped again; remember that I still needed to make a produce delivery to Lexington that day.

At 10am I figured I could spare the time for a shower, which is an important part of my wake-up routine. I made some coffee and a cream cheese bagel to take along, refilled my water bottle, and was headed out again at 10:30am. I stopped at 501 Produce to give them their portion of the cash, then drove on to South Fork Produce. As I paid Ammon, the fellow who runs South Fork Produce, he asked me if I would be available that afternoon to transfer a truckful of melons from 501 Produce to him, to be loaded on the Wal-Mart semi that would be arriving at 4:30pm. I told him that it would be pretty tight but possible, and I would call from Lexington to say whether I could be back in time.

After that I drove up the hill to Jerome’s to load the order for Good Foods. Usually we take our time about this, but since I was trying to get back as early as possible I was on my way again in twenty minutes. At one point I had thought I would stop for some fast food, just to quench my hunger for a few hours, but instead I decided to see how quickly I could get to Lexington if I pushed it, so I munched on crackers and cherry tomatoes and kept driving.

Turns out that I can get there in about one hour and forty-five minutes, not too bad. I could have unloaded quickly and headed back home, but I was also supposed to give Jerome’s wife a ride home from visiting her family in town, and she hadn’t arrived yet. At that point I thought it was fair to stop pushing, so I called to say I couldn’t do the afternoon run, then took my time visiting with Matt in the produce department as we unloaded the order. When Mrs. Lange arrived, she did a bit of shopping and then we left for home. On the drive home I wasn’t drowsy, but I could feel my energy ebbing away. I dropped her off at her place, stopped for fuel, and arrived back home at 5:30pm where supper was waiting. After supper I fell asleep in the living room, and when I woke up at 8pm I decided there was no point in doing anything but going up to bed, where I slept until morning about as soundly as I ever have.

Wednesday I was back in the truck at 7:30am, to take a l
oad of melons to Crab Orchard, but after Monday/Tuesday’s adventure it was a peaceful way to spend the morning. When I stopped back at 501 produce, Daniel’s sister Leah asked me if I was available to drive her and her sister-in-law to town Thursday morning for a few errands. It’s common for the Mennonites to hire a driver for such things, but it isn’t something I wanted to do on a regular basis, especially since it is a twenty-minute, twelve-mile drive from home to pick them up. But I had been wanting to at least give it a try, and I also wanted to do what favors I could for the Burkholders, so I told her that would be fine and agreed to pick them up at 6:45am Thursday.

When I arrived Thursday morning, Leah told me that her brother Joe had decided to go as well, and asked me to go get him first, giving me directions to his place about three miles away. I went there, and when Joe came out he was moving very gingerly—it turns out he had hurt his back badly and wanted to visit the chiropractor in town. We headed back to pick up Mrs. Lena Burkholder (Daniel’s wife) and her daughter, then next door to get Miss Leah Burkholder, then next door again to get Ephraim Burkholder’s son.

On the way into town we passed a couple of buggies, and the Burkholders commented on how this or that person had gotten an early start. Normally they would have made this trip in a buggy themselves, but Leah needed to get back as soon as possible to work at 501 produce. We first went to the small hospital in Liberty so that some of the women could have blood drawn (I’m not sure why, but there were lots of other folks there for the same reason). While we waited, Joe wanted to save some time by driving to whatever stores were open at 7:30am; we stopped at the IGA so he could buy some rat poison, made a note that the Dollar General didn’t open until 9am, and went and waited for the Save-A-Lot to open at 8am. By 8:05 it hadn’t opened and we needed to move on, so we headed back to the hospital, picked up the women, and drove to the chiropractor’s office. Although it didn’t open until 8:30am, someone was there and let them in to wait, while I sat in the car and read a book.

About 8:45am Joe, Ephraim’s son, Lena, and her daughter emerged, and asked me to take them to the bank while Leah was still seeing the doctor. I did, then came back and waited for Leah, who came out about 9am. We then went to the Dollar General store where everyone was to meet. Leah went in for a bit, then came out and asked me to take her to the Radio Shack, where she needed to buy a loud ringer for the telephone at the produce station. Neither of us was sure where the Radio Shack was, though, or even if there was one in Liberty. We drove up and down the (very short) strip, then stopped in at the electrical supply store to see if they had a ringer. They didn’t, but they knew where the Radio Shack was, so we drove over there and Leah bought what she needed. Then it was back to the Dollar General, and after a few more minutes everyone gathered and we were on our way back home by 9:30am. When we got back they asked me how much to pay; I told them I had no idea, but I wanted to charge them a bit less than the going rate. We finally agreed on $25, and the five of them gave me $5 apiece.

When I had seen Daniel that morning, he had asked me if I could move a truckful of canteloupes from his place to South Fork by 4pm, and I told him I could. But shortly after I got home he called and asked if I could be there by 1:30pm, since the Wal-Mart truck was running early. Again, I said I could. But as I sat down to lunch just before noon, Daniel called again and said the Wal-Mart truck was running very early, and could I come right away. I said I could, asked Maggie to save my half-assembled tomato sandwich for me, grabbed my water bottle, and headed out. When I got to 501 produce Daniel and his crew were scrambling to wash and label a bunch of melons; they loaded the truck quickly, then Daniel and two of his sons hopped in the cab with me and we drove the six miles to South Fork Produce. When we arrived at 1pm we found the loading dock already occupied by an impatient Wal-Mart truck, so we drove to the other side of the building, unloaded the bins quickly, and scooted them into the semi, which was gone a couple of minutes after the last bin was loaded.

Daniel talked for awhile with Ammon, then hopped back in the cab with his sons and asked if we could stop by Raymond Shirk’s place to pick up a piece of equipment for him to repair. (Daniel does welding—in fact, he will be repairing some metal parts of my truck this winter.) We drove the half-mile or so to Raymond’s, and figured out how to load the two unwieldy parts of a gizmo used to pull plastic mulch out of the ground once the growing is over. Then it was back to 501 produce, where it would be easier to unload the gizmo than at Daniel’s place.

After that it was up to Jerome’s place. After I got home from taking the Burkholders to Liberty, I had helped put together the Friday produce order for Good Foods, thirty pounds of acorn squash and sixteen pints of cherry tomatoes. Jerome was doing the Friday delivery so he could also visit family in Lexington, so I needed to take the stuff to him that afternoon. When I had to leave suddenly, we had tossed it all in the truck, along with a cooler with two gallons of milk, a gift for the Langes that would have otherwise been poured out on the ground (too much milk around here right now, and no pig to eat it). Jerome wasn’t around, so I left the produce and put the milk in his cooler, and finally headed back home.

Compared to all that, Friday’s work was uneventful, just another trip to Crab Orchard to deliver melons. The waits for loading and unloading were a bit longer than usual, and I was really wishing I had remembered to bring a book along. There was a very small chance that Denny Holman in Chattanooga would want a load of melons delivered today, but that never materialized and it was fine with me. I will probably be taking him a couple of loads over the next couple of weeks, at which point melon season will screech to a sudden halt and I’ll be out of the trucking business for awhile.


10 thoughts on “A week of driving

  1. I think you need a lap-top in your cab for those down times, to record the events of your day!

    It’s very interesting reading about your part of the world. I enjoy it and peek in every few days. Thanks!


  2. I know nothing about truck driving, but my uneducated impression looking at the figures you’ve mentioned is that after fuel and maintenance on the truck your hourly return on the actual driving can’t be much. (And that your tolerance for heat must be much greater than mine!) :-)

    I also wish we lived close enough to take some of that extra milk off your hands…

  3. I know nothing about truck driving, but my uneducated impression looking at the figures you’ve mentioned is that after fuel and maintenance on the truck your hourly return on the actual driving can’t be much.


    It definitely isn’t, and anyone thinking about driving a truck for a living shouldn’t follow my example.

    My current situation is a little different, though. I bought the truck so that I could sell produce from local farms (including our own) to buyers in nearby cities. Eventually I hope to sell directly to customers, using the truck as a mobile store.

    But that work is just beginning, and in the meantime I have a truck available and time on my hands. The jobs I’ve been taking are not so much ways of earning cash as they are ways to meet local people involved with produce and to learn something about the business. But I don’t mind that there’s also some cash left over at the end of the day.

    I should also point out that as we are working to become less cash dependent, cash itself becomes an ever more precious commodity. So even if the hourly return ends up five or ten dollars an hour, those dollars are more significant to us than to a family supported by a steady job.

    (And that your tolerance for heat must be much greater than mine!)

    It’s pretty high. I think the turning point came when Chris and I played a series of outdoor barbeques in August 2005, where the temperature averaged 95 degrees and we wore outfits with jeans and heavy long-sleeved shirts. The first one was miserable but we survived, and at the second one it hit me—this is unpleasant, but not intolerable. Since then I’ve seen it mostly as a matter of attitude.

    I also wish we lived close enough to take some of that extra milk off your hands…

    We’ll certainly bring you some when we come to visit.

  4. I believe that there is still something wrong with that truck’s cooling system. It should not have such problems, even on hot days in the mountains, under load.

  5. Jeff,

    Quite possible. It’s also possible that I’m babying it too much, or just that I’m misreading the temperature gauge. Here are the facts as I recall them:

    • When the engine is idling, the temperature will run well below 180 degrees, the lowest numbered indicator.

    • If the engine is hot, it will cool off fairly quickly when idled, maybe 5-7 minutes to get from over 210 degrees to well below 180.

    • When the truck is loaded but running on level ground, I’ll barely be touching the accelerator and the gauge will read slightly over 180.

    • When loaded and going up a moderate incline (or into a wind), I’ll be pressing the accelerator a bit to maintain 50+mph and the gauge will sit between 180 and 210.

    • When loaded and going up a steeper grade, I’ll press the accelerator hard to maintain 35-40mph, and the gauge will slowly climb to 210.

    • When loaded and going up a very steep grade, speed will drop to 15-20mph, and the gauge will steadily climb to 210 and over.

    • On my trip to deliver cantaloupes to Tennessee, a couple of the hills were very steep and the gauge climbed to 230 (the highest numbered indicator). I didn’t worry too much, since I knew that the “Stop Engine” light didn’t come on until the gauge was pegged hard to the right.

    • I don’t worry at all until the gauge reads 210, and on days when the temperature is under 95 degrees it doesn’t go above that.

  6. Wow, that is some schedule. How often do you have stretches of running like that? I have heard from the Thilmonys down there that ya’ll have had record breaking temperatures. Then to have the heater run…. Whew…..

  7. Marci,

    This one just kind of happened, because I was available during the peak of produce season. If I was planning to do this sort of thing on a regular basis, I wouldn’t simply be on call as I have been, but would do much more to arrange thing in advance, and would have better standards for accepting or turning down last-minute jobs.

    Aside from that, the work is probably over for now. This week I took melons to Crab Orchard on Monday morning, produce to Lexington on Tuesday morning, and melons to Crab Orchard on Wednesday morning. And that was probably the last melon delivery, since the main melon sender just finished harvesting them. I haven’t seen many cantaloupes around, so there probably won’t be another trip to Tennessee.

    Which leaves me with the Tuesday delivery to Lexington, since Jerome usually does the Friday delivery. And that will probably only continue for a few weeks, since by the end of September the deliveries are small enough and farm work is light enough that Jerome would rather make the deliveries himself rather than pay to have them done.

    It was a hectic couple of weeks, but the main purpose was for me to get familiar with the possibilities, so that next year I can intelligently decide what if any extra delivery work I can take without hurting the more important jobs we need to get done around here.

    Record heat, indeed. We saw as high as 104 degrees (the day that the grass instantly turned brown), and I think August had the longest stretch ever of days above 92 degrees. More important to us, though, was the lack of rain—nearly nothing all summer long. But last night we got two inches in just an hour, and another half-inch over the rest of the night, so perhaps our pastures will start to come back.

  8. Jeff,

    I don’t know if they checked for that or not. The next time I take the truck in for servicing I’ll be sure to ask about it.

  9. Jeff S.,

    If the head gasket was leaking (assuming it is leaking coolant into the cylinder) would that be evidenced by a coolant level drop?

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