Along with more traditional car-travel diversions like the ABC game and singing “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” my brothers and I used to play a game in which we dreamed we were truck drivers roaring up and down Interstate 5 from Los Angeles to Sacramento. Each of us chose his rig from the many we passed by exclaiming, “My truck!” before the others did. Often our choices only lasted until we spotted the next truck. We argued the comparative virtues of Kenworths and Peterbilts and looked with disdain on lesser models such as Freightliner and Ford. We made the chain-pulling gesture to every truck driver on the road and cheered if he obliged us with a few blasts on the air horn. A few hours of this was enough to make my road-weary father yell, “Shut up and look out the window, you apes!”
Recently I took my first ride in a genuine 18-wheeler driven by 38-year-old Manuel Yanez, who works for Bud’s Trucking of Lakeside. Late last August, I meet Manuel at Bud’s depot on Slaughterhouse Road off Route 67 at 3:00 a.m. The depot has a small office building with a truck maintenance garage next to it and an acre lot of 28 parked trucks, each painted a deep royal blue. Manuel is heavyset, about six feet tall with dark hair, fair skin, and a long, aquiline nose. Another driver named Terry, who has sandy-blond hair pulled into a ponytail and a thick mustache, is complaining to Manuel about a drive he made yesterday to Banning near Palm Springs. “I thought that place was going to be the butthole of the world,” he says, “and it was.”
Before we hit the road, Manuel walks around the truck checking the tires and making sure nothing obvious is wrong. The whole rig, known as a “transfer,” consists of a ten-wheel dump truck pulling an eight-wheel trailer on which sits a second cargo bin. The cab of the truck, a Peterbilt, has the engine in front, as opposed to a “cab-over,” the term given to those tall, flat-fronted trucks with windshields straight above the grills. As Manuel fills out the truck’s logbook, I ask him how old the truck is. “Three months old,” he replies. “It’s got 28,000 miles on it.”
If you’ve ever glanced into the cockpit of an airliner, you have an idea what the dashboard of the truck looks like. Two dozen switches, meters, and gauges plus a CB radio and a cellular phone. Predrive procedures complete, Manuel starts up the truck, pulls across the street to a gas station, and fills the truck with diesel. “This truck will take about 160 gallons,” he tells me while filling the driver’s-side tank. “We’ll probably use about 60 gallons today. The cost depends on what fuel is, and right now fuel is about $1.60.”
Manuel has been driving trucks for over 21 years. As we turn left onto empty Highway 67, he tells me how his life as a trucker began. “I started driving in April of’76,” he recalls, “when I was still in high school. I grew up at a dairy, and when the hay truck would come in, they’d say, ‘Hey, pull the truck up a little bit.’ So it started little by little. Then a friend of my brother’s, he would let me drive his truck out in the desert when I was 15,16 and didn’t even have my license. It got to the point where by the time I was 16,1 would drive all the way out there, load it, and bring it back all the way. I thought, ‘This will be a good way to make a living, plus I don’t mind doing it, so maybe I’ll do this.’ ”
At 3:30 a.m., while heading west down Poway Road grade with a steep cliff on our right, someone in an old sedan whizzes past on the left and cuts back in front of us, narrowly missing the front of the truck. “Look at this here,” Manuel says, shaking his head. “We go through this every day. Sometimes you want to stop and look at the front of the truck to make sure there’s no sign that says, ‘Please cut me off, I need it.’ ” We pick up the 1-15 north at Poway Road. Our destination is a rock quarry in Corona, north of Lake Elsinore. I ask Manuel what we’ll be hauling. “Rock dust, what we call ‘slurry.’ It’s for a slurry seal [pavement], which is an oil, water, and sand mixture. We mostly haul rock and gravel but also hazardous waste, fertilizer, clay — anything we can put in the back.”
Riding in the cab of the truck, I’m struck by how far off the ground I am. It’s as if I were riding down the interstate in a house looking out the second-story window. Manuel tells me I’ll get used to it and that the height sometimes affords interesting views. “You’d be surprised what you see,” he says smiling. “You hear a lot of stories about it, and I tell you, it’s all true. If we could write stories about that.... Oh, man! Especially going out to the desert, you see a lot of weird stuff. Even in town, people just don’t have any concept. They’re in a car, and they don’t think anybody can see. The other day, I was on the 94 at about Spring Street — this was close to about noon—I looked over and then looked again, and I said, ‘Oh, man!’ This lady was changing. It makes it interesting. You’ve got to do something when you’re out here.”
My sensation of speed in the truck is different than in my car. Cruising along at 58 miles an hour, I feel as if we’re going 20.1 notice that at this speed the tachometer on the dash shows less than 1500 rpms. “It’s at about 1450 rpms,” Manuel explains. “This has a new select motor that you can lug down to about 1200 rpms. This one puts out about 500 horses at 1700 rpms. In a car, you can take them up to about 5400. It’s all different in a truck.”
Another difference between trucks and cars is a truck’s longevity. Rarely do cars make it to 200,000 miles; not so with trucks. “The truck I had before I got this one,” Manuel tells me, “had 550 some-odd thousand miles on it. The only thing we did is put different injectors in it, updated the turbo, and replaced the heads. It just depends on how you drive it. If a guy drives it respectfully, he can make a motor last.”
Is it the low rpms that make the engine last so long?
“Well,” he answers, “it isn’t necessarily the low rpms; it’s not letting it run hot. When you go up a hill, you don’t have to mesh on the motor the whole time; you can back out, grab a different gear. Like I say, you don’t have to hammer on the motor to make it run.”
Near the juncture of 15 and 76, Terry and another Bud’s driver nicknamed Wild Bill, who are both behind us, start heckling Manuel over the radio.
“Boy, Bill, it sure is nice not to have Manuel driving that truck at 85 mph,” Terry says.
“That’s the first time I’ve seen that truck go that slow,” Bill responds, making Manuel laugh. Terry then races past us on the left.
“You can bring it over if you want to,” Manuel tells him once he’s clear of our truck.
“Naw, I’ll just stay here,” Terry says, driving along in the second lane from the right.
“Hey, Terry, get that goddamn thing back over where it belongs!” Bill yells.
“Steady, big fellow,” Terry responds. “It is where it belongs. This truck pays enough in highway taxes so I can use any damn lane I want. I know this because God told me so yesterday. He escorted me all the way up through here, and He said I could use any damn lane on this freeway I wanted to.”
I ask Manuel if trucks can only travel in the right lane.
“We’re only allowed to use both these [right] two lanes. Those two [center] lanes over there, one and two, are what we call the dollar lanes, because if we get caught using them, it’ll cost us anywhere from $35 to $100.1 think that center lane’s about $150. Basically we’re restricted to this [right] lane, [the second to right] lane if you’re passing. They don’t bother us in that lane unless it’s a commercial guy who’s really chicken about it, or if you get a rookie.”
What did he mean by “commercial guy”?
“There’s the regular highway patrol and there’s commercial highway patrol. They’re for commercial vehicles like this. They’re usually the pickups. They’ll inspect you. If there’s a truck involved in a wreck, they’ll usually get a commercial cop out there, and they’re the ones who’ll look the situation over, and they’ll pretty much handle it. The guys that work in the scales here are commercial cops.”
At this early hour, the truck scales just before Temecula, just before the Border Patrol checkpoint, aren’t open yet. “This one is never open. These guys are like bankers here,” Manuel says. The Border Patrol checkpoint reminds Manuel of a story. “I once had [an illegal alien] crawl up on top of a load while I was fueling up,” he tells me. “The guy was going to ride all the way up to L.A. I got pulled over about halfway up by the Border Patrol. He said, ‘You’ve got a guy up on top.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ He said, ‘No,’ and he got him down.”
At 4:30 a.m., we get off I-15 in Corona and drive into a big rock quarry called Chandler Aggregates. It’s still very dark, but the place is swarming with trucks. Manuel drives straight to the back, past giant rock-crushing machines and huge piles of rock, sand, and gravel to where a massive yellow skip loader is dumping giant shovelfuls of sand into trucks. We wait our turn in line behind three other trucks.
“Morning, Manuel,” the loader driver says over the radio.
“Morning,” he responds. “Type 2, please.” One shovelful in each of the two bins is all it takes to load the truck. Each shovelful shakes the truck violently as the slurry hits the bottom of the bin. Manuel swings the truck around and drives back toward the gate, where he pulls the truck onto a scale next to a small building.
“I’ve got Type 2,” Manuel says to the woman in the window. “Bill the line to Bud’s.” A digital meter next to the scale reads 39.54, the loaded truck’s weight in tons, or 79,080 pounds. The truck empty is about 29,000 pounds.
After recording the load weight in the log, Manuel pulls the truck over to the side of the yard, gets out, and waters down the load with a nearby hose. Across the front wall of each bin, a tarp is rolled up like an old-fashioned window blind. Manuel stretches each tarp out to cover the load. He wipes the dust off the truck with a chamois, and we’re on our way back to San Diego. The truck is accelerating slower now, but it doesn’t seem to be straining. Manuel takes it easy and doesn’t “hammer on it.”
We stop for breakfast in Temecula and then continue south. As we climb up the hill out of Temecula, Manuel slows to enter the scales, but just before we get there, the “Scales Open” sign switches to “Scales Closed.” Manuel says they sent us by because they were too crowded.
I ask him how much weight the truck is allowed to carry.
“At this one here,” he answers, “you’re allowed almost 13,000 pounds on your front axle, 34,000 on your tandems — they call those the drive axles—and 20,000 for each axle in the back. As long as it adds up to no more than 80,000.” Just past the scales, Manuel says, “Look, there’s a chicken hauler,” and he points at a truck with a van-type trailer and about 50 running lights.
Why did he call him a chicken hauler? Manuel smiles and explains. “Because of all the lights and because he’s from back east— he’s from Minnesota. That’s what we call them, chicken haulers.”
I ask if there’s a redneck culture in trucking.
“Yeah, there is,” he answers with a chuckle. “Not so much in this area, but L.A. is really bad because L.A. is one of your main destinations for freight and anything like that. So you have people coming in from all over. If you get up around the Ontario truck stop and places like that — Oh man, it gets pretty bad. The accent, the way they talk; they’re always better than anybody else, always complaining about coming to California. They complain about fuel prices, they say they get harassed by the cops a lot—they just go on and on and on.”
At 7:40 a.m. we arrive at the unloading site in Sorrento Valley. We’re greeted by a short, wiry, red-faced, white-haired man named Gerry. He and I stand on the curb while Manuel unloads the truck. The dumping procedure is wonderful. First, Manuel unhooks the trailer, then he backs up the truck to where Gerry and I are standing and dumps the load of sand by raising the front end of the bed with a hydraulic lift. He starts backing up toward the detached trailer. The bin on the trailer has wheels, which sit on tracks like a train; the bed of the truck has tracks in it too. Manuel lines up the two sets of tracks and brings the truck back until it just touches the trailer. The bin has an electric motor the size of a coffee can. Manuel flips a switch on the outside of the truck; the motor drives the bin off the trailer and into the bed of the truck, and the tailgate locks it in. Manuel dumps the trailer bin’s contents just as he did the truck bin’s.
While I marvel at this process, Gerry, who owns a paving company and will use the slurry for roadwork, tells me he rents the truck “for about $600 from Bud’s. After paying Manuel, gas, etc., they only make about $200 for renting it.” But that $200 doesn’t go very far. “Well, one tire costs about $300.”
When Manuel finishes unloading, I hop back in the cab, and we head off, back to Corona for another load of Type 2. This time we’ll be taking it to Gerry’s yard in Chula Vista — “Chula-juana,” Manuel calls it.
Ever wonder about that sound trucks make going downhill? It sounds like the word “burr” but with the r rolled and held. “That’s an engine brake,” Manuel explains as we drive east through Sorrento Valley. “That slows down the engine, which slows down the rear end, and it slows the truck down.”
The engine brakes keep the rpms from going too high and thus keep the truck’s speed under control without using the brakes. A truck driver uses his brakes as little as possible so that when he really needs them, they will be there.
“That’s why all trucks go slow [down steep grades],” Manuel explains. “You shouldn’t have any problem with brakes if they are adjusted right. That’s why we have a policy that we adjust them. On this truck, they are self-adjusting, but we still go under there and check them. Anything that’s man-made you don’t trust. If God makes it, you can trust it. The biggest thing is, when you drop down off a hill, you go slow enough to where you get the rpms at the right speed with the engine brake. The engine brake will hold back that power so that all you need to do is tap your brakes to slow it down back to where you need to be, and it will hold. It saves the brakes a lot.”
I-15 is a little more crowded now than it was earlier, but it’s on the southbound side, and we’re headed north. As we near the county line, we hear Terry over the radio saying his left steering tire had blown out. “It’s scary when that happens,” Manuel tells me. “These tires have a hundred pounds of air pressure in them, and when they blow, you really feel it, especially when it’s one of the steering tires. It’s hard to control the truck.”
Past Lake Elsinore, we see Terry’s truck parked on the shoulder of the southbound side of the freeway, its front left rim sitting on the pavement Manuel calls to Terry over the radio, “Are we having fun?”
“You bet you,” Terry responds. “I don’t suppose you could go over there to the store and get me a bag of Fritos and a Coke Classic, could you?”
“Okay. It’ll be a couple of minutes, but we’ll stop there.” Manuel answers. “Need a new pair of shorts?”
“No, I got them cleaned up.” After picking up another load of slurry and filling Terry’s order at an AM/PM minimart near the quarry, we drive the ten miles back to where he’s stranded. Manuel pulls over behind him, and we both get out to check the tire. The tread had peeled off of the sidewall and shredded into strands of steel-belted spaghetti.
“Just about scared the piss out of me,” Terry says as I gawk at the shredded tire. “Luckily, the tread stayed in a circle. If it breaks, it can come up and take out the mirror and the door and the air cleaner.” Looking at me, Terry adds, “It’s just one of those things that happens, and when it does, you just hold on and clean your pants later.”
We leave Terry with his Coke and Fritos and continue south, picking up 163 and 805 south, which we take all the way to Chula Vista, where Gerry has his yard just south of the Sweetwater freeway. Manuel double-parks the truck in front, unhooks the trailer, and backs down the driveway into a corner pile, where he dumps the sand. Then he drives back out, transfers the trailer bin into the truck bin, and repeats the routine. Before we leave, he fills out the logbook, entering the time and place of unloading. I ask how much the two deliveries made him.
“Today,” he answers, tapping out a few numbers on a small calculator, “my percentage is about $170.”
As we get underway again, Manuel calls Bud’s depot on the cell phone to ask about more jobs. They tell him to pick up a load of rock in Mission Valley to take to a train derailment site in Vista where it will be used to repair the railroad bed. A few minutes later, they call back and tell Manuel to bring the truck in and call it a day. Instead of continuing up 805 to Mission Valley, we get off onto 94 east, take it to 125 north, then 8 east through El Cajon, and north on 67, back to Bud’s. At 2:00 p.m., Manuel pulls the truck into a gas station across the street to top off the tank before he “put[s] her to bed until Monday.”
I ask if he’s happy with his job as a trucker.
Manuel pauses and smiles. “Sometimes I wonder why I decided to drive trucks, but it’s made me a good living. I don’t know if I could handle working in a warehouse or sitting behind a desk all day, going to the same place and punching a clock every day—and for less money. With this job, you pretty well get out on your own, and how much you make varies according to how hard you want to work. If you want to bust butt and go, you can do well. It’s a different life, but I like it.”