Sailing the highways

A constant feature of my time on the road has been the presence of large trucks – lorries in the UK, semis in the US – or semi-trailer truck to give its Sunday name. They are like ships sailing along the seas, and you don’t mess with them.

Semis on the slip road to the interstate

When they want to pull out, I flash my lights to say ‘go ahead’ – they’d probably do it anyway, but I’m being polite. Semi drivers get it – car drivers don’t. The flashing of headlights to indicate all clear to pull out flummoxes car drivers, whereas semi drivers put on their warning lights to say thanks. A small difference, but I don’t want a gun pulled on me by an angry car driver who thinks I’m being aggressive. 

The somewhat malevolent presence of semis on the road comes from the 1971 Steven Spielberg movie, Duel. A mild-mannered salesman played by Dennis Weaver gets into a duel with an old oil tanker and its unseen driver as he travels cross-country. It came out as I was travelling from Illinois to Idaho to fight fires and made me wary of messing with semis.

Semis also came into popular culture with the 1975 song Convoy by CW McCall. The storyline is about pissed off semi drivers – the recent blockade of the Canadian capital Ottawa and border crossings between the US and Canada due to vaccine requirements was a contemporary example of semi drivers expressing their views.

And you’ll be familiar with Me and Bobby McGee by Kris Kristofferson, covered by everyone from Janice Joplin to Roger Miller. I haven’t yet thumbed a lift on a semi on this trip.

But, like in the UK, there aren’t enough of them. Walmart is just one of many companies advertising on the radio for drivers, offering a salary of $110,000 – but you gotta have a couple years experience and a clean record. Driver shortage is more acute in the US than in the UK, given the dependence on semis to transport goods all across the US – the comprehensive interstate highway system enabled this mode of transport.

Interstate highway system set off by Eisenhower in 1956

Like car drivers, semi drivers pull over when the day draws down.  As the sun sets, some semis are lit up like Christmas trees, with lights framing the outline of their rectangular trailers. When I pass interstate rest areas in the evening, semis are parked like ships in harbour, some even spread out on the entry and exit roads as all berths in port are taken.

Semis hunkering down for the night in an interstate rest area

The cabins of semis meet most driver needs while on the road. A feature of semis different from 50 years ago is the sleeping area behind the cab. I was shown into one when I was walking around a rest area – like the small Amtrak sleeper compartment that I had on the Southwest Chief. But at least I could walk along the corridor to the loo – the shortage of driver facilities is a common complaint here.

21st century semi cab

I had a conversation with Steve as he rested in his semi. He said that it wasn’t the same. Though wages are now going up, there is a race to the bottom on costs, and companies are taking anyone off the street to train quickly and cheaply. Roads are more dangerous now with inexperienced drivers in charge of the big rigs as they sail along the interstate seas. I’ll be even more vigilant.

Semi parked in a row at gas station rest area
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