CDL test results and experience

First things first – I passed!

I’m going to share how I scored in a sec… but whew! What a weight that has been lifted! I proved that I can safely operate a commercial motor vehicle safely and in control, earning my Commercial Driver’s License. Wow. It’s still sinking in a little.

So now what? Well, I have four weeks left of school, so there’s a lot to learn yet (that will continue beyond school, too, of course). But dude! I am now a CDL holder! This is so exciting and obviously a pretty major part of this whole new adventure for me and Adam!
Now my focus can be on fine-tuning, as well as experiencing a variety of equipment and new scenarios. Up to this point we’ve been in day-cab trucks, so pretty soon I’ll be driving sleeper trucks (the ‘bigguns’ with the bunks in back). I’ll also be hauling a 53′ trailer (compared to the 48’s we’ve been using). Loaded trailers, tanker trailers, doubles, and different transmissions (I’m pretty sure there’s a 13-speed in there). I still have to learn about things like weight distribution, blind-side backing, more in-depth trip-planning, tandems and scales. Oh! And there’s the whole skid-pad training, too, where we force cars and trucks into a skid and work on correcting it! That’s going be bring-spare-underwear fun!

So anyway… the test.
Pre-trip Inspection: I was randomly given form B for my pre-trip portion of the test. This is the area from the tractor door to the back of the tractor, as well as the coupling devices. All I missed were two things – the platform of the 5th wheel, which is silly because I was just asking about it the day before my test, and the oil pressure gauge, which is also silly because it was directly in front of my face as I mentioned all the other gauges right next to it. Either way, I passed with only two points off pre-trip and I’m happy with that!

I completed a perfect straight-line back. Zero points off for the easy one. Then I did my left offset back. I used both of my free pull-ups and finished with zero points off. Good. That meant I had 12 full points to use for my 90-degree backing maneuver. I got my trailer tucked into the lane pretty crooked, but it was in the lane. I knew at that point that I had it. When I stopped to use a pull-up I had a feeling I touched the boundary, and I did. Two points off for encroachment. I used both of my free pull-ups, but I was still a little bit crooked, so knowing I had some points to spare, I gave up one more point and pulled up once more to make it pretty. I tucked it back perfectly straight in the lane, then got out and used a “look” to see I was about a foot from my final position. I backed up that foot, finished my backing (whew!) and moved onto the road test with only three total points taken off of the backing portion of my test. I started to breathe a little easier…

“Just don’t hit a curb,” I told myself, “and you’ve got this!”

Road test:
I relaxed, I made a point to breathe, and took it slow. I felt pretty comfortable while out on the road and only got 8 points off on this portion to which my tester told me, “anything in single digits is considered excellent. Nice job.” I was BEAMING at this point. I sighed loudly with a big smile, looked at my tester and said, “I did it…” I don’t remember what all 8 points were for, but they were all pretty minor things. My biggest error was coming off the highway on a downhill off-ramp when I lost my gear for a second, and while I was trying to fix that I missed a couple of traffic checks. I think that was 3 of the eight. I even got both sign quizzes correct – an unmarked bridge clearance and a red parking sign.

After the test I signed some paperwork and immediately went to the DMV. They punched my old class D license with a fancy “VOID” hole punch and handed me my temporary class ABCD license with my N and T endorsements on paper. There ya’ have it folks. I’m officially a truck driver!


When a voided license is a good thing... because I'm getting a pretty cool upgrade.

Oh… and… Adam and I accepted a position with a local trucking company, but more on that later. We’re employed and excited to start getting a paycheck again! Well, I’ve got four weeks of school learnin’ still, but after that… hittin’ the road!


You know what I love tonight? I’ve said it before… it’s you. Know why? Because you read my rambling, sometimes self-absorbed blog posts and even leave me the nicest and most supportive comments. I can’t tell you how much that fuels me and pushes me to succeed in crazy stuff like long hikes and new careers. So thank you.

Thanks for reading and being a part of my journey!

With love,
Toots Magoots
(Robin Grapa)

Stress revealed


This fortune makes me laugh.

I shouldn’t be so stressed. In fact, I’m probably not that stressed, but somewhere in my mind I feel like I can be, and I’m feeding off of that.

I quit drinking caffeine a couple of months ago. I’m kind of proud of that. Then I started exercising every morning. I missed only two Sundays because of dumb hangovers. The workouts are only 10-20 minutes, and the ongoing goal is ultimately to boost and hopefully level out my metabolism. I also started counting calories again (which I’m not a fan of), took my vitamins, ate my fruits and veggies and quickly started to feel pretty amazing as a result of it all. I was establishing new habits that weren’t as hard to keep as I thought they would be. I especially felt good when I stepped on a scale to see I was only 1/2 pound from my goal weight. I was actually a pound and a half lighter than I was when I got home from my PCT thru hike.

I was in control.

What does any of this have to do with anything? Feeling in control meant I felt strong, healthy and confident. But this weekend I let go of that control just a tiny bit. I think I let a stress that I’m not even certain is real take over. I indulged in copious amounts of delicious restaurant foods, waking up in the middle of the night wondering if I might throw up. My body was rebelling against some poor decisions and reminding me that I am still as fragile as I’ve always been. This is a good thing. A subtle, humble reminder.

Looking back on these few, poor choices, however, resulted in my eyes welling up with tears. My reaction led me mentally running away to the trail and missing it in a way I haven’t missed it yet. I have a big test on Tuesday and I’m afraid I’ll fail. I’ve temporarily fallen back into some old, unhealthy habits. With letting myself realize, or I suppose simply admitting a few small fears to myself, I let my mind run away for just a moment. I immediately tried to escape by closing my eyes tightly and setting myself back on the trail.

It’s just reality and reminding myself of my imperfections and remembering to accept them with a full heart. I can still be in control here, and it’s not over because I binged, or because I didn’t study as much as I had planned. It just means I need to wake up and stop beating myself up for such a silly minor mental setback.

I am going to do the best I can like I always do, and that’s all I can ask of myself. Whatever the outcome is is meant to be, and good or bad, I will learn from it and keep stepping forward. I’m not doubting myself, as I know I’m fully capable of getting back on track with my metabolism goals, and passing my CDL test. I think I’m just mentally preparing myself for a different outcome than I’m hoping for so that if it does go that way I can put it behind me that much quicker.

Emotions are weird and I don’t always understand how they intertwine and work. But I do know I miss that freakin’ trail, I know I will get up and work out tomorrow and eat my celery, I know I can pass that test, I know I’ll be disappointed in myself if I don’t, but I also know I’ll try again until I do. I know that if and when I do pass, I’ll carry a mile-wide smile all day long and toot my horn when given the chance. Dammit, I just hope I get to do that on Tuesday and not prolong this whole emotional thing!

Onward. I’ll never stop thinking of trails hiked or dreaming of trails unhiked. And right now I’m going to read my pre-trip notes and focus on staying relaxed.

Tonight I love chance. It’s meant to be taken… and it’s meant to be a challenge.

Thanks for reading and being a part of my journey!

With love,
Toots Magoots
(Robin Grapa)

My CDL test is scheduled!

A Fox Valley Tech trailer at sunet

I love this school.

On Tuesday, just a few days away, I’ll be taking my CDL skills test. I’ve been in class for only 5 weeks, so it’s hard for me to believe that I might already get an actual legal license allowing me to travel all over the entire country in a giant 80,000-pound vehicle with bouncy seats, full of buttons and gauges with brakes that run on a system using air. Or that the instructors even think I’m ready for this test… already.

When I went on the road last week with instructor Brian, he took me all over the place, and at one point he asked, “do I have you totally lost?” I told him he did and that I had no idea where we were. We were in Little Chute. I got a lot of practice in that day, and I felt pretty good about how I was driving. Once back at the school, I parked in the “truck stop” and  Brian showed me a few tricks for a smoother start from a stop (I was much better at this in our previous truck), and he pointed out just a few things for me to work on. Then he wrote something down, pointed at it and said, “when you get a chance, head over and pay for your CDL test.” He felt I was ready and was going to schedule me for next week. I was shocked, instantly nervous and didn’t really feel ready, but these instructors know what they’re doing, and I’m going to trust them.

Later they explained to us that they understand we might not feel 100% ready for the test when they tell us they’re going to schedule us, but they see cues that we are on an “upswing.” We are improving at a certain rate and that this is the perfect time to test. It won’t be long and we’ll sort of plateau for a little bit, and possibly even slow down as we become a little too comfortable. It’s the perfect time while we’re fresh and still hyper-aware of the several things we have to stay focused on. It makes sense and strangely made me feel a little bit better about it.

But I am still nervous. At night when I can’t fall asleep, I’m visualizing my truck in my mind and going over each part and reciting what I need to say when I point to it during the pre-trip inspection part of the test. I visualize doing an offset or 90-degree backing exercise. I’m thinking about that right mirror and how I neglect it sometimes when I’m out on the road. I think of corners and not hitting curbs. The thing that’s scary about this CDL test is that you can do every single thing perfect, but there are these few thing that can automatically fail you. There’s obvious ones, like doing something dangerous or getting into an accident. But there’s simpler ones, too, like speeding. Or hitting a curb. I’m sure you’ve seen semi drivers jump their trailer tires up over a curb once or twice. If I even so much as kiss that curb with a trailer tire, I fail. I’ve done it a few times practicing, and you all know about my snowbank story!! Well, yeah… needless to say, that would fail me, too. On top of all this, it’s winter, and a snowbank equals a curb, so if my tires brush a snowbank… fail. These are the little things that worry me. I’ve been doing amazing on my turns during my last few runs, so I shouldn’t be worried, right? But what if the ONE day I cut that corner just a wee bit too short… is Tuesday morning? Better to take those turns wide (which is one point off), than to take it too tight, brush a curb and fail. It’s strategy, I suppose.

To be completely honest, these nerves are fueled a little bit from excitement, too. It kind of makes me feel “alive” to do something so completely different that anything I’ve ever done before, and so far, I’m succeeding at it. And driving a big truck is simply just fun.

So to help mentally prepare myself, and share with you all out there who are curious, here’s how the CDL test works. There are three parts to it, and I pay $50 for each part. So I’ve already paid a full $150 to take the test. If I fail the first part, I do not continue, I pay another $50, reschedule and try again. If I pass the first part, but fail the second, I do not continue, pay another $50 for part two, reschedule and start on part two. Same with if I pass the first two parts but fail the third. For each part I would need to repeat, I have to fork out another $50 and reschedule. Obviously it’s best to just pass all three the first time!

Here are the three parts to the test:

Part 1: Pre-Trip Inspection
There are four “forms” for the pre-trip inspection and I will randomly be given one. Each “form” represents a different section of the vehicle. It could be just the engine compartment, the part just past the engine compartment to the drive axles of the tractor, just the trailer, or the entire vehicle. I actually hope I just get the whole thing because that’s what I’m used to checking. I need to point out things and describe what I’m looking for. “Looks good” is not acceptable. I have to say things like, “I’m looking at all the hoses and making sure there are no holes, breaks or leaks.” I have to point to the air compressor and say, “The air compressor is securely mounted, all bolts are present and they are all tight.” I have to point to the fan belt and say, “The belts all have the proper amount of play and there are no frays, chafing, glazing or cracks.” There’s a whole lot more, but I think I’m getting them down okay. Also part of this test is checking the coupling system (where the trailer is attached to the tractor), an external lights check, an in-cab inspection (signals, mirrors, horns, defrosters, emergency equipment, etc.), and an air brakes test. If I forget to push in the buttons to release the brakes and continue through the air brakes test, this is an automatic fail. I will not forget to push those buttons in! If I fail at any point, I stop there and do not continue with the rest of the test. I pay another $50 and reschedule and try again in a few days. If I do pass, I move onto the second part of the CDL skills test, which is backing.

Part 2: Backing
There are three backing exercises I’ll need to complete successfully to pass, and this is probably the area I am most concerned about, because if I flub up and just have a hard time correcting myself, points will start racking up and when I hit 12 points I fail. Each back gets a set amount of free pull-ups, which means you can pull the vehicle forward to reposition yourself without losing points. After you’ve used the free pull-ups, you lose 1 point for each additional pull-up. Each back also gets a set amount of free “looks,” which means you can leave the seat and get out of the vehicle to check your position. Same with pull-ups, you lose 1 point for each additional “look” once you’ve used up all of your free “looks.” Then there’s encroachment. If your vehicle crosses any boundary line during the exercise, you lose 2 points the first encroachment, then 4, then 6, 8, 10 and 12. Final position is important, too. If you aren’t in the proper final position at the end of the backing exercise, you lose 10 points. And the tricky part is that your 12 points are for all three backing exercises combined.

The first back is called a straight-line back. I pull up through a lane of cones, stop, activate my 4-ways, sound the horn and begin backing in a straight line all the way through the same lane of cones until the nose of my truck is behind the last set of cones. I stop, apply my parking brakes and sound the horn to communicate to the tester that it’s complete. I get one pull-up and one “look” for this exercise.

The second back is called an offset back to the left. From the straight-line back, I pull back up through the same lane of cones, stop, activate the 4-ways, sound the horn and begin backing to a lane that’s behind me and to my left. I have to back into that lane until the nose of my truck is behind the first set of cones. I get two free pull-ups and two free looks during this back.

The third back is the 90-degree back and the most difficult. The cones are reset, and I drive around and line up my tractor and trailer 90 degrees to the lane I want to back into. I activate my 4-ways, sound the horn, crank the steering wheel sharply to the right so my trailer will cut into the lane that is to my left, and slowly and carefully start counter-steering just perfectly to get the trailer to tuck in between the first two cones. I need to get my entire vehicle straight in that lane, with the ICC bumper (which is the big, metal bumper at the end of the trailer) in a space 3-feet wide at the end of the lane. I get two free pull-ups and two free looks for this back, and if I’m not sitting with my ICC bumper in that 3-foot box at the end of the lane for final position, I lose 10 points, so this part is a pretty big deal. It’s wise to save a “look” for this part so you are certain you are positioned correctly before sounding your horn to signal that you’ve completed the back.

Part 3: Road Test
On this part of the test, we go out onto the road with the tester giving us turns and instructions when to merge lanes, asking us what signs said after we passed them, all the while marking checks down on a score sheet in their lap. We are tested on turns, shifting, awareness, intersections, traffic checks, curves, railroad crossings, the highway, and even a roadside stop and start. As I mentioned earlier, there are a few things that are automatic fails, like an accident, a dangerous act, not wearing a safety belt, law violations, impeding traffic (for example, if I pull out into an intersection and a car needs to slow down or stop for me), or bumping a curb.

So there it is. This is where my brain is going to be, hopefully at 100%, on Tuesday morning. I will be focusing on staying relaxed, confident and just doing my thing that I know how to do… but I could still use some happy vibes if you think of it that morning! If I fail? Well, then I fail and try again… but I’m shooting for one and done.

Tonight I love opportunities. It looks as though Adam and I might have another employment opportunity, and we’re both pretty darn excited about this one. The trucking industry sure is interesting!



A moon and two trailers

The moon between two trailers on one of our long days. Pretty stuff.

Progress, greasy messes and intersections

It’s been almost an entire week since I’ve written! Since I’ve already gotten my Instructor’s Permit, got signed off on the three major backing exercises, and started driving on the road, not too many huge things have happened since then. The one thing that stands out, though, is progress. Each day in class I get out on the road and feel a little more comfortable, a little more confident, and places I’m struggling seem to smooth out just a bit more. Case in point: shifting. My shifting seems to be getting better each day I get out there and drive. I look forward to going to school every day, getting into that truck and getting out onto the road. Seriously, even with the heavy weight of some major responsibility and safety in mind, this is so much FUN!

I guess one thing that kind of feels like a big deal, is that I haven’t hit any more snowbanks. In fact, the last few times I navigated roundabouts, I’ve been close to perfect. Today they would’ve been perfect… except that I forgot to signal on the exit! Dangit! I was so excited that I hit that roundabout and tracked my trailer through so smoothly that I forgot one of the simplest, important tasks. Next time I’ll get it.

Intersections are usually where I struggle a little bit right now, but as I mentioned, each time I get out I feel a little more comfortable. What happens at intersections is I see all this traffic ahead going in all directions, but I need to pay attention to the stop and go lights, what turn lane to be in, when to start downshifting, getting my tachometer and speed down to the correct speed and rpms to downshift smoothly, recognizing what kind of turn it is and how much room I have, where the hazards are, snowbanks, turn signals, merging into turn lanes and traffic checks, mirrors and more traffic checks… to name a few. It’s going to eventually all become second nature, I know, but for now I am hyper-aware, trying to stay completely focused and not screw up. I get tense with all this going on, and sometimes admittedly forget to breathe. In fact, one of the instructors got into the truck with me the first time and said, “Are you the one that forgets to breathe?” I laughed and replied, “Yeah… you’ll notice my face turn bright red at intersections sometimes… that’s when I need to breathe.” I think I’ve gotten myself down to more lighter shades of pink now, meaning I’m more relaxed and breathing more. Ahh, the color of progress!

I am studying more about the pre-trip inspection, focusing on what I will need to cover, point out and describe during the CDL skills test. In fact, just today, myself and four other students were brought into one of the safety bays (a giant garage for semi trucks) where an instructor went over the pre-trip with us. I hear this is a sign that we are close to… ahem… testing. Oy. I have so much more I need to straighten up before then! But this was a sure sign that there will be a CDL in my near future! Well, that’s if I pass… which I hopefully will the first time! You can bet you’ll be reading all about it on here when I find out when that test will be taken, because I’ll be nervous and will need to spill it somewhere!


A sampling of pre-trip stuff to look for.

I took two more written tests at the DMV last Friday and passed, so when I eventually get my CDL in plastic, I’ll have the Tanker and Doubles-Triples Endorsements added to it right away. The next and last one I need is the Hazardous Materials endorsement, which I need to study pretty hard for.

Oh, one day last week I was checking the brake pads and a few other things on the drive axles, and as I leaned over to look on the inside of the wheels, I bumped my jacket into the fifth wheel, which is the plate that the trailer slides onto. This thing is caked in thick, gooey, black grease so that the trailer can slide on and turn easily with the tractor. When I stepped away, there was a long, stringing goo of 5th wheel grease going from my jacket, stretching about a foot back to the 5th wheel. It doesn’t hurt anything, but let me tell you – it gets freakin’ EVERYWHERE. I wiped some off onto the towelette I used to check the oil, but then that got onto my hand, then my pants, then the pockets of my jacket. Then it spread to my clipboard. I wiped some off with my gloves, and eventually even got a little in my hair. Ugh! What a mess! Now it’s just a big, black, greasy spot on my jacket that makes me look all grungy and tough like a real trucker… or at least that’s what I’m telling myself! Truthfully, that pink Carhartt jacket needed some grease on it. :)


Today I did a successful 90-degree back, immediately followed by a successful offset to the left, and then another offset to the right. It was a series of good backs that made me feel good. I also made an offset late last week without pulling up even once! I just backed it straight in. I still hope to make that happen at least once with the 90-degree back, but we’ll see… that one’s a little tougher to do without using a pull up.


Offset backing practice. Too bad we don't get points for pretty designs!

We got a butt-load of snow today, but thankfully I was able to get out onto the road earlier this morning before it really started to come down. I took a new route and got to go on Hwy. 41. I float-bounced along in my air-ride seat going 60mph in 10th gear, and it felt like heaven. It was a nice break from the constant intersections of my other two routes I’m signed onto. There’s still an awful lot to pay attention to, but at least I got a small break from all the constant shifting. Seriously… my left quad is going to be twice the size of my right quad with all the clutching exercise I’m getting in town! Maybe I should start one-legged squats during my off-time to balance out!

Well, I think that’s all I have to update at the moment. Each day consists pretty much of driving, backing, learning paperwork and progressing. If I can continue to get a little better each day, I just might make a pretty darn good truck driver!

Tonight I love photographs. I took a ton of photos on my PCT thru-hike last year, and as much fun as I am having learning to drive a truck, I think about that hike every day and miss it. The photos that I took are sometimes difficult to look at because I want to be back there so badly, but yet I’m so incredibly happy that I had the opportunity to be in those particular moments able to take those particular photos. I always have a way to go back for a second or two by glancing at a few photos… or a hundred. :)


I went to class today on a mission to redeem myself and regain the confidence I need to keep driving without hitting snow banks.

I totally conquered that mission and I’m feeling much better. Not only did I do a much better job on the road (two roundabouts including the same one I screwed up on yesterday – with no incidents), but I also got signed off on my 90-degree backing! The 90-degree back involves driving up perpendicular to the lane I want to back into, then cutting the trailer into the lane while the truck turns to a near 90-degree angle to the trailer, then finish with the rear bumper of the trailer landing square in a three-foot box near the back of the lane. It was a boost to get a few really good ones while Instructor Jim watched. He even complimented me on one back where I almost didn’t need to pull up to straighten out. New goal: get a 90 without a pull up before I graduate. Goals rule.

Tomorrow is our long day, and I hope I have another good road day to prove to myself that today wasn’t a fluke and that I really am getting better at this whole driving a semi thing!

A couple of other things from today: I fueled up our truck for the first time today – over 50 gallons! We also had our first random drug testing. I wasn’t selected, but my classmate Tom was, but of course passed no problem. Even as students we are not immune to the industry’s laws. Good learning stuff happening every day.

Instructor Jake hassled me a bit about yesterday, which was great. He stood beside my truck window looking up at me with a grin on his face and says, “Hey, I’ve got a new nickname for ya’… Snowbank.” I laughed and told him I’ve already been calling myself that! I guess that means we’re on the same page.

All in all it was a good day and I hope to report more like it in the future. I know I’ll have my off-days, but I already know how important those days are in my learning experience, too.

Head up and onward. And my dad’s advice: “one mile after the other and dodge the alligators.” Love it!

Tonight I love a sense of humor. It sure helps make rough patches just a little bit smoother.

Thanks for reading and being a part of my journey!

With love,
Toots Magoots
(Robin Grapa)

A rough day that ended with good news

What do you get when Robin’s driving a truck on the road for just the third time, through a roundabout, in traffic, and there’s snowbanks all the way around the roundabout?

If you haven’t already guessed, I’ll give you a hint: Robin gets super-embarrassed. Yes, I drove my trailer tires up onto a snowbank, only this time it wasn’t on our enclosed private practice range. There was real stuff going on around me this time. Afterward my instructor told me we were in a pretty tough spot and tried to remind me to move on past it… it’s not a big deal… it’s not all your fault… well, looking back, I can see what I could have done differently, which makes me think, “yes, it is my fault,” but thankfully it was just trailer tires on a snowbank and nothing more serious than that.

What happened? I was approaching the roundabout, and as I slowed and turned my focus to downshifting into 4th gear, three cars zoomed up along my left side and two cars were coming around the circle. I had to stop at the yield. As I stopped, the cars to my left started to go, and so did I. In hindsight, I should’ve waited until those cars all left that lane next to me. I could’ve scooted forward, using the lanes I needed and swung through without an issue. But I didn’t. I started to move, didn’t have room and cut the turn too tight, driving those back trailer wheels pretty darn far up the snow bank. Shit. Instructor Steve had me stop, turn on my 4-ways, and then he got out and tried to talk me through getting unstuck. In the middle of a roundabout. I was unsuccessful.

I was soooo embarrassed. I had that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I just hoped we could get those tires out of the snow bank. I hoped he wouldn’t have to call out on our radio for assistance – where all my classmates could hear. Steve had me jump out and switched spots with me. I stood in the road to spot him as cars slowly inched between me and the stuck semi. I remember thinking, “is this seriously happening right now?” It was happening and I felt sick. Thanks to Steve, though… he shimmied those trailer tires down the snow bank, I jumped back in the passenger seat and we finished out the day. No radio call-outs, no tow truck… just a red-faced, humiliated me. I’ll take it.

Steve was great about it. He kept telling me “it happens,” and “put it behind you.” It’s important to learn from mistakes – big and small – but I’ve heard from all the instructors that it’s best to move past and not dwell on these mistakes. So onward I go. But dammit. No more snow banks!

Winter, GO AWAY!

So, fine. That sucked. BUT… I did try some 90-degree backing and was nailing half of my attempts. I think I’ll be ready to test soon. Tomorrow or Wednesday, I think. That’s kind of cool since they are some pretty tough maneuvers.

My downshifting is getting better.

We get a lot of in-truck time this week.

All good stuff.

THEN… the best news ever! After Adam picked me up from class I was getting a little down as I told him my snow-banky story as we drove past the evidence – the trailer tracks waaay up in the snow. We head to a grocery store, and when we arrived, Adam checked his email. From Covenant Transport: “Are you ready to schedule your orientation?”

Whoa. What!? Adam called them back right away… we were pretty much in. A job! A real team-driving trucking job! Already! …wow… I have to send in an application, get my CDL, finish up school on April 4, then we can go at orientation on April 9. The ball is rollin’! Another HUGE bonus to this opportunity is that Adam can be my company trainer… meaning he and I can get into the truck together right away. Normally I’d have to “train” with a company trainer for a few weeks. It’s a pretty awesome perk that this “trainer” can be Adam.

What a relief. We still have time to poke around and peek at opportunities that might still be out there, but to have something lined up is… well, it’s great! We are excited.

Every day it gets more and more real. Adam and I are anxious to hit the road, work hard, work safe and start earning paychecks. I have a feeling this momentum will keep going, and before I know it we’ll be rolling along together like we imagined. I cannot wait.

Tomorrow I will not drive up on a snow bank. I just can’t!

Tonight I love bare curbs. One day I’ll see them again. Hopefully sooner than later! 

Thanks for reading and being a part of my journey!

With love,
Toots Magoots
(Robin Grapa)

This shiznit is gettin’ real

I drove on a road today! Already! I’m talking traffic, speed limits, right turns, left turns, stop lights, more traffic and even a freakin roundabout! I got up to 40 mph and 9th gear! It seems like every single day we are thrown into something new and slightly unknown, constantly pushing us into… well, stuff we might not be sure about, but find out that we are totally capable of. It’s really quite exhilarating.

When I studied for my IP (Instructor Permit), I at least felt like I went in knowing my stuff and was kind of prepared. It happened faster than I imagined, but I at least had an idea of what taking a test was like. You basically just answer questions. There’s not much danger in that. Well, driving on a real road was different. I wasn’t sure that I was ready to deal with cars that need to be places with real, living people in them while I buzz along at 15 mph hoping I don’t run into them. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to downshift in time for an intersection. What if I took a turn too tight and hit a light pole or rode my trailer tires onto a snowbank? Mr. Plow Man wasn’t going to be behind me to give me a nudge and save me out here. I was nervous, but here’s the thing. These trainers aren’t going to take us out on the road until they feel we’re ready… or at least that’s what I kept telling myself. They think I can do it, so I must be able to. Well, I did, and once again surprised myself.

“The trainers do this all the time,” I thought. Instructor Jake brought me out. He’s pretty awesome. He started out driving, talking me through shifting, traffic checks, speed, intersections, break hovering, turns… all kinds of things. After about twenty minutes or so, he pulled over on a lightly-travelled road where we switched seats. He told me to just take my time, not worry about ticking other drivers off (it’s okay if they tell me with their hands that I’m “#1”) – just take it easy and keep my vehicle in control.

I didn’t hit anything, I took some beautiful corners, I had some amazing upshifts and even a few great downshifts, I didn’t jump any snowbanks, and only had really one, tiny awkward moment when I pulled up a little too far at a not-so-busy intersection. I think I just made the other driver at the stop light nervous. I can’t really blame him. My vehicle was much larger than his and it read on the side, “Student Driver.” He was doing the smart thing to wait.

After we got back to the school, Jake went through the things I need to work on. I think one of the big ones was to stay calm. When I got nervous or felt rushed my shifting went haywire. How can I seriously forget what gear I’m in so often!? Anyway, even though I felt as though my shifting greatly improved, it still needs work, and that was no surprise to me. I was hugging the white line a little too tight, and I need to make more traffic checks at intersections. I hope I get the opportunity to go again tomorrow and work on these things!

A couple of other fun things about today – first, my embarrassing moment – I got hung up on a stupid snowbank on the practice range again. Same damn one as last time. I seem to want to practice my downshifting on that curve and loose sight of my trailer tires. I held up about four other trucks that just had to wait until an instructor could drive over and talk me out if it. Sigh… just call me “snowbank.”

Second, I took out two cones today while working on 90-degree backing. One I pushed in front of my tires, and the other I tipped over – but on a different attempt to do this tricky back, I backed it in with only one pull-up (we get two). Then I did another one later tonight. I dedicate both successful backs to the cones that sacrificed their placement for my practicing. ;)

Even through the mistakes, bonked cones, and embarrassing moments, I’m having a blast out there. Driving an 18-wheeler includes a TON of responsibility – not hitting other drivers, not hitting other things, not hitting anything in general, and following a lot of laws, understanding how important they are and how much fault can be laid upon us as a professional driver if we don’t follow them. It’s pretty serious stuff, that’s for sure… but it’s also been so much fun!

I pray that the rest of my road runs are safe and successful. I’m feeling more confident each day, but I definitely still have a long ways to go.

Cone kill count: 2

Tonight I love the patience of these FVTC instructors. All of ’em. Seriously, there’s a reason this is the best trucking school in the country.

Thanks for reading and being a part of my journey!

With love,
Toots Magoots
(Robin Grapa)

Instruction Permit (temps) and harder backing

I passed! I have my Instruction Permit (or what could be considered my “temps” for a big truck). I’m excited! I’m scared! I’m nervous! I’m excited!

It’s nice and kind of fun to be able to take such leaping steps towards something I’m working my butt off for. I studied my brains dry for those tests. I was proud to have passed the first “general knowledge” test with only 2 out of 50 questions wrong. Then I took the “air brakes” test. I got zero wrong! A beautiful 100%. Then I took the “combination vehicles” test and got one wrong. And those last two tests? I flew through them like it was no big thing. I had my photo taken, waited in line, paid $30, and was handed my 8-1/2 x 11 sheet of paper that acts as my Instruction Permit until I get a pretty plastic version in the mail.


There's something about those DMV cameras. I look like I have the chin of a giant.

On Thursday I tried Offset Backing. Straight-line backing seemed pretty easy – that’s the one I passed with no problem last week. On that backing maneuver, you pull through a lane, stop, activate 4-ways, honk the horn, and slowly back straight back into the lane you just pulled through, all the while correcting any drift the trailer makes along the way. I learned right away it doesn’t take much at all to make that trailer turn! Well, Thursday we started Offset Backing. You pull through a lane just like straight-line backing, except this time when you back up, you’re backing into a lane that’s next to and behind you. I kept making the same mistakes and found myself feeling a little frustrated by the end of my practice. I would steer to hard and jack my trailer way too far over, and it became too difficult to correct. Yesterday I did manage to get a couple of them in, but not without direction from Jake, one of our instructors. He gave me some good pointers; the biggest being that I was oversteering. As I mentioned, it doesn’t take much to make that trailer turn. Then he hopped up onto my truck, and through the driver’s-side window, looked at me, smiled and said, “you are having trust issues with your trailer.” He was right. I just needed to trust that the trailer was going to go where I directed it to go. And I had to stop oversteering. I tried a few more times, still getting used to how the trailer moves in the opposite direction than the wheel is turned by literally talking myself through the start of the back. “I want my trailer to go left, so I turn my steering wheel right.” It’s a weird concept to get used to. I wasn’t feeling too confident by the end of my practice yesterday, but it was time to switch drivers so my partner could take a few cracks at it. Instructor Jake seemed to think we’d both get signed off today. Both Michael (my partner) and I weren’t so sure!

Well, guess what? Jake was right! We both got signed off today! I was surprised, to be honest… and it was pretty awesome. I got one warm-up lap around the practice Keller Range when Steve, another instructor called us on the radio to come over to the skid pad area to do some offset backing. I head over there, fully intending to just practice and have Steve talk me through a few more attempts. I pulled through the right lane and up to the cone, cranked the steering wheel right, activated 4-ways, honked my horn and began my back. I aimed for the lane behind me and to my left, counter-steered slowly, got as close to the cones as I could get (without hitting any!), then used one of two pull-ups we’re allowed (meaning you can pull the tractor-trailer forward to realign yourself), then made a perfect straight-line back into the lane. I had no direction from Steve at all. I did it all on my own. I was freakin’ beaming with pride. I peeked over at Steve, who was sitting in a truck watching me. He held up a finger to indicate I passed one of four offset backs I needed to make. Sigh… was it a fluke? Can I do that one more time? Three more times? I pulled up again. Same thing. Backed it in. Steve held up two fingers. Pulled up again. Backed it in again. Three fingers. Pulled up, backed in, and Steve called me over the radio, “bring me your purple sheet so I can sign you off.” I grabbed my sheet and danced over to his truck and smiled as wide as I could as he signed it. When I was all done, Michael jumped in the driver’s seat and banged out four himself. We rocked it today, and we were both pretty pumped up after that. I never knew backing a truck (successfully) could be such a rush!

These two recent steps – receiving my Instructor Permit and getting signed off on Offset Backing means that I can be taken out on the road with an instructor. I don’t know when that will happen, but it could be any time now. That makes me nervous. That might make YOU nervous! Haha!! Just look for those FVTC white tractor-trailers with “Student Driver” printed on them! I have a feeling it might be a bit yet, as I still need to work on my shifting. It’s improving slightly each time I drive, but it’s slow-going… it’s mostly still my downshifting that needs work.

Next up is the 90-degree back. I hear this one is really tough, even from the more experienced students. My current cone kill count is zero. I’ve seen many a’cone dragged, pushed and run over on others’ attempts at the 90-degree backs, so I think my cone kill count might make a slight rise. We might start that tomorrow already. We are on the range all day tomorrow, so we will have probably close to 10 hours of in-truck time. That is pretty awesome.


On a side-note, I had a break this past weekend. I went to Minocqua, WI with eight of my girlfriends for our annual “Box Tour.” We had such a great time. On Saturday I did a bunch of snowshoeing, then we all hung around a giant bonfire at the Thirsty Whale, ate dinner, then hung out at a bar until close. We laughed until our guts felt like they’d split, ate fondue, played “Cards Against Humanity,” caught up with whatever was going on in each others’ lives, talked about childish things while giggling like 12-year olds, and all-in-all had a really nice time. I’m still kind of recovering from sleep deprivation, but it was worth it, I suppose.


The girls! ♡

Oh, and my smarticles for the day – we noticed a crack in our fan belt during our pre-trip inspection, found out how to check our coolant level (by shaking the truck), finally identified the spring shackles and mounts, I got to watch the air bags deflate on a suspension dump, and did some coupling and uncoupling. That also needs work. There are so many things I’ve learned these past couple of weeks that I can’t believe it hasn’t been a couple of months already… and there’s so much more that I need to get figured out in the next seven weeks. One day at a time…

Tonight I love cones. I love them because maybe if I do I’ll be less likely to hit them. Or drag them under my tires. Or squish them… :)


One of my favorite photos from the weekend - Heidi and I riding the whale. :)