Really close to the real thing.

I’m already in my last week of trucking school. I’m honestly a little torn between feeling excited and sad. I’m sad because I really love this program at Fox Valley Tech, my classmates, and these amazing, super-patient instructors. I’ve had such a great experience learning to drive a semi truck that I kind of wish I could learn all over again… except I can’t… because I think they’ve done a pretty good job. I actually learned to drive an 18-wheeler!

I am more excited than I am sad, though. This has been a long time coming. Adam and I have talked about team truck driving for years, and we’re finally freakin’ doing it. We are going to work together, travel together, share more experiences together, and work on becoming debt-free together. It’s getting really real up in here, my friends.


Meet Barney, our purple 13-speed monster. He's pretty friendly.

But wow. SO much has been going on! I’m going to buzz through a set of things (there just happens to be 10 that stand out) that have happened in the past week.

1. I drove an automatic semi truck. Yep, that’s right. No clutch, no shifting. Just step on the accelerator and listen to the truck shift through all the gears on its own. That was weird. In all honesty, it was kind of nice driving through town in it because I didn’t have to upshift and downshift at every intersection. I’m still not sold on the auto transmission, though. I like having control of my gears, and the thought of going through the mountain grades without that control makes me nervous. And besides, I worked really stinkin’ hard at learning to shift, and it’s fun now that I know how to do it… so dangit! I like the manual!

2. Connected to that automatic truck I drove was a set of double trailers. You’ve seen them going down the highway. Two shorter trailers being hauled with a dolly connecting them in between. They look scary, don’t they? I mean, how the heck does a driver turn with them on there? What about backing it? That’s just crazy. Well, let me tell you the surprise news. It was easier than the straight-up 53′ trailers I’ve been hauling. I’m not kidding! First of all, when it comes to backing double trailers, it’s simple. You don’t. If you have to, you disconnect one trailer, back one as a  single trailer, then reconnect the other one and back it in. As for taking corners, it’s much easier because the second trailer just follows the first one like a train, so it’s basically like you’re hauling a short trailer. On really tight corners where you’d normally have to take a button-hook turn (where you kind of maneuver the truck in a big ol’ circle around a right turn), you just turn it normal. The doubles track really tight around corners and it’s pretty cool.

3. I hauled a tanker trailer, too. It was empty, so it was super-light, and I was actually able to get the rig going to about 55mph before entering the highway! That’s gotta’ be a record for me. I haven’t found the big secret to getting going at highway speed. I just assume trucks that get up to 60 or 65mph on the highway have an empty trailer. That or I’m just a gramma driver. Which is entirely possible.


Kind of blurry, but check out how roomy that truck cab is!

4. I bravely battled a couple of button hook turns. I managed to make a flawless button-hook turn last week, then did another one today. I was feeling nervous about them, but after today I feel much better. I mostly just need to get over my worries about ticking all of you off out there in your cars! I have to take up both lanes before the turn and pretty much suck up both lanes as I complete it. Sorry. It’s a big vehicle, and I just don’t want to hit you or that light pole!

5. A little downside to things… It’s hard right now for Adam and I being apart during our trucking apart phase. He was struggling a little bit this last run. Well, actually, a lot bit. Being apart from each other certainly wasn’t helping this whole situation. He doesn’t want to drive solo, but it’s kind of what he ended up doing while I finish school and work towards getting trained so we can get into a truck together. He was pretty stressed out about hours, he hit some bad weather, a headlight went out, he had to try to get a hold of people in the middle of night for help, his electronic logging was wonky because of his training and working off of paper logs… it was just a whole lot of things wrapped up into one giant ball of crazy. All I could do on this end was answer the phone and try my best to encourage him that we’ll get through it and it will be worth it once we’re in that truck together. I think he was on the brink of a major anxiety attack, and I just wanted to reach through the phone and hug him. He hung in there though, and he’s back out on the road again. It sounds like he’s getting the hang of it and learning to trust that the company we’re working for really is pretty awesome. So far it sounds like we made a really good choice.

6. Videos. Lots of videos. I watched so many videos for school over the weekend. I fell behind on them a little bit and just wanted them done. So I immersed myself in them. I remember watching the video titled “Extreme Rollover” and dozing off toward the end. I decided to turn it off, take a quick 10-minunte nap and finish the last three videos when I woke back up. Well, an hour later, I woke up from a nightmare – you’ll never guess! – that I rolled a truck onto its side. Phew. So glad that was just a dream!


About 10 hours of videos and copious amounts of tea later and videos are complete!

7. I randomly saw Adam on the road in our Midwest Carriers truck! This was a big deal. He was going to be getting back to Oshkosh and stopping there for the night and I was going to drive down and stay the night with him in the truck. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him throughout the day, so I didn’t have any idea where he was or how his schedule was turning out. Nicole was driving Barney and I was the passenger. We stopped at a red light and she said to me pointing to our left, “Hey, look, it’s one of your company’s trucks.” I peeked over, and there was this beardy guy in a blue shirt leaning into his windshield looking over at us. It was ADAM!! Ohmygosh! I got all giddy like a teenage girl, smiling ear to ear, waving frantically. I think I might have even bounced up and down. It was the coolest coincidence ever, and it was pretty much the highlight of both my and Adam’s day simply because it was so unexpected.

8. I reached a goal that I set over a month ago. When I got signed off on my 90-degree backing, I made it a goal to do one without using a pullup before I was done with school. Well, it wasn’t happening, and we moved to sleeper cabs and longer trailers. I had pretty much given up on that goal, feeling satisfied with getting them with one or two pullups… until late last week. I set up my back, cranked the wheel to the right, backed it towards the left, counter-steered slow and controlled, and as smooth as can be, backed that sucker in the lane like I’d been doing it for years. Zero pullups, straight in the lane. I was elated!

9. We went on a field trip. We had a convoy of five trucks, and Nicole and I were driving Barney. I drove first, taking Hwy. 41 to a scale in Abrams, but it was closed. Nicole took over driving and we head to Bonduel where we stopped in for a potty break. Then we convoyed on to Wittenberg where we all ate lunch together at a truck stop restaurant. After lunch, Michael (my old partner) drove Barney back to school with Instructor Jim in the passenger seat telling Nicole and I some of his stories of his early trucking years as we sat in the back of the sleeper cab in converted bunk-to-seats-with-seatbelts. It was a fun trip. I have to wonder what cars thought seeing five FVTC trucks all in a row cruising around Wisconsin together. Think anyone was scared? Five “Student Driver” semi trucks in a row?



10. Real work is scheduled. Today I called Jeff at Midwest Carriers to confirm my orientation for next week. When he called me back, he asked how soon I could make it in for a drug test. I’m going in Friday after we get the “boot” from school at noon, peeing in a cup and signing some paperwork. I assume this is paperwork to get me into their system as an official employee and all that jazz. Then he says to me regarding the drug test, “That way we can get the results back for Monday and we can send you out on local runs.” I will be with a trainer, but working. Monday. For real. Graduate Friday, work Monday. Paying to drive Friday, getting paid to drive Monday.

Coming up is a cookout celebration, a special gift for our instructors, and graduation. These past couple of weeks have been nuts and full of what feels like pretty eventful stuff, and I’m feeling like it’s only just beginning.



Nicole took a photo of me pointing out the weird bolt sticking out of our fifth wheel before we realized it was totally normal.

Tonight I’m throwing my love out to my classmates at Fox Valley Tech. I’m gonna miss these guys! Thankfully I get to hang out with them for two more days, and we all exchanged phone numbers so we can keep in touch.

Thanks for reading and being a part of my journey!

With love,
Toots Magoots
(Robin Grapa)

Skid training in a semi truck

Your average semi truck can weigh as much as 80,000 pounds, and are generally somewhere around 70ish feet long. Truck drivers face all different kinds of weather conditions, traffic hazards, and are usually on a time crunch to get their load somewhere by a certain time. Even driving super-slow in adverse weather conditions, there is always a chance this long and heavy truck could lose traction and go into a skid, and there’s even a few different types of skids. Different axles on the trucks can lock up in different combinations, and depending on which ones do, the truck can react differently in each situation. Just learning how to drive a truck and control it in normal conditions is a lot to learn, so trying to imagine skidding in one of these beasts is pret-ty darn scary. So what does Fox Valley Tech do? They throw us into a skid so we can see what it would feel like, all the while teaching us how to use a focal point, properly brake, clutch, counter steer and react as quickly as possible.

Not only was this an incredible learning experience, it was SO much freakin’ fun! It certainly wouldn’t be any fun if it were to happen out on the road for real, but on the school’s skid pad (Wisconsin Decision Driving Center), they give us the chance to get a “feel” for skidding in a controlled environment so we can hopefully know how to react properly if it does happen later on. Basically, in fun terms, we got to skid out some old police cars and semi trucks. Yeah. It was pretty awesome.

The skid pad is slippery when it’s dry – it’s just how they designed it. Then they take these huge hoses and water the course down so it’s even more slick. First we went out in the old police cars. We took a sharp turn at a controlled speed, then went again at a quicker speed without anti-lock brakes (ABS) and learned to squeeze brake to keep the car in control. It was actually kind of tough. Then we turned the ABS back on, and let me tell you – ABS is amazing. Your car probably has it. Be happy. We did this in the trucks later, too, and the difference in stopping distance was major. ABS must save thousands of lives. For real. Anyway, back to the funsies for now.


Warming up the tires just a bit.

We then took the same corner at a slow speed, but enough to put the cars into a slower skid. We learned to “shuffle steer,” which is something I had never heard of. You basically jerk the steering wheel back and forth pretty violently while following the curve, and we were able to keep the car in pretty darn good control. I don’t know that this would work in a fast skid, but it worked great in a slow skid.

Then… we did the acceleration skid. We got the car going only about 28 mph, then slammed the accelerator to the floor. That car spun around about three times, flew water up all around us, and the speedometer maxed out at 140 mph while pretty much going nowhere but around. Those tires were spinning like CRAZY. Once we hit some dry pavement, the car started to come to a stop with smoke billowing up from the tires. It was a good example how quickly a spin could occur if you accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brake. Crazy.

Next we did some more quick reaction-type maneuvers around cones in the same cars. A light would come on telling us whether to turn right or left at the last second before a “hazard,” or cones in this case. (Poor cones!) Then we took the same course, but deciding which way we wanted to turn ahead of time. It was SO much easier to make the maneuver when you already knew which way you wanted to turn. Makes sense… and proves how important it is to pay attention, and how much difference just a second or two can make! I unfortunately hit the “Little Johnny” cone a couple of times when we did this exercise with no ABS and last-second turn direction. I tended to brake too long, making it impossible to steer around “Little Johnny.” Goes to show I hope I always have ABS, I’m going a safe speed, and paying attention!


Waiting in line to skid!

Next up was trucks. First there’s the rig to test the ABS. We drove the truck at about 26 mph, or somewhere in there, and slammed on the brakes with the ABS turned off. We had to counter steer to keep the tractor and trailer straight, and that thing skidded quite a ways and we noted where we were finally came to a stop. Then we went again, but with the ABS on. We hardly had to counter steer, and the whole rig stopped in probably half of the time. Checking to be sure the ABS is working on our trucks is part of our federally-required pre-trip inspection… for good reason. So if the ABS light in your vehicle is lit up on your dashboard, don’t cover it up with electrical tape. Get it fixed. For reals. It’s pretty cool stuff, and seriously might keep you alive.

It was great to see the difference driving this truck with and without ABS, but in our little controlled environment, is was honestly kind of boring. Good, but boring. It got better, though. Next up was the bobtail, which is a truck without a trailer. The first time in this thing, Nicole was driving and I had the brake controls – yes, the passenger gets this little remote-control to press in the brakes. It’s just another fun part of this whole experience. We did as directed over the radio by our instructor – Nicole jerked the steering wheel and I pressed the brake buttons. That tractor went into a pretty fun spin! I think it spun around once or twice with water splashing up all around us. It was fun, but then we had to do the same maneuver, but counter steer out of the spin. Going only about 25ish mph, it’s possible, but can be tough. If you ever see just a tractor driving on the highway in poor weather conditions, try not to hang close by them for too long. Just in case.


The brake buttons.

Then the best part. We got into the tractor and trailer with no ABS on. When I drove, I was pretty proud that I was able to keep the trailer in pretty good control with counter steering. This is all at a pretty low speed, though. I believe the point is to see how much can happen even at such low speeds. We just have to keep our vehicles in control at all times, and in some cases, we need to even stop and let the weather pass. It’s been said several times, “no load is worth your life.” Good mantra. Anyway, I keep getting sidetracked with the serious stuff. After a couple of runs with this rig and getting a feel for how the trailer kicks out behind us and how hard we sometimes need to counter steer to keep it straight, we did the final maneuver.

This final maneuver is called the “wipeout.” This is NOT what you want to have happen. Ever. We got the rig going about 26 mph, pulled the trailer brakes so just the tires in the very back of the trailer locked up. We learned that the locked-up wheels always want to take the lead, and it was certainly proven in this exercise. And not only did we pull the brakes on the trailer, we jerked the steering wheel hard to the left. The trailer brakes locked up causing the end of the trailer to kick around and jackknife beside us, then swing around the other way as the tractor came to a complete stop. The trailer wasn’t finished yet, though! It swung around and hit the other side of the tractor and pushed it with a great big “SLAM!” I was ready for it because I watched a couple of other students first. But if you weren’t expecting that, you’d most likely need to change your undies. In a real-life situation, this would be rather horrible.


Thankfully in this controlled environment, the trucks are set up so they can’t even fully jackknife. They have straps to stop the angle of the jackknife before it could possibly break the equipment or harm a driver or passenger. We still got a really good feel for what it might feel like, though. Again, it was super-fun in this situation, but once we’re all in the industry working for real, our trucks aren’t going to have the safety features these ones did, and we won’t have an instructor on the radio telling us when to brake, how to brake, when to steer, how to steer, and where to look. When we got done with our skid pad training, I was exhausted from adrenaline alone. After the couple of times spinning around or skidding out, I was nearly in tears from laughing so hard, and my hands were shaky. This was a good ol’ fun kind of adrenaline.

I learned so much from this, and I can only hope to God I never get into a situation in which I’ll need to use these techniques, but I’m sure glad I’ve got this experience! Once again, thanks FVTC! If you ever think about going to school for truck driving, just don’t think. Come here!

…now if only we can convince our instructors for one more go with those police cars!

Tonight I love doing donuts. I could’ve done that all day long!

A visit to our new home


Home sweet home... on wheels.

Adam is heading out on his first solo run early tomorrow morning, so when I picked him up tonight he was in our truck! I got to jump in and look around. He was on the phone taking care of some work stuff as I poked around, opened cabinet doors, checked out our tiny refrigerator, laid on the bed, checked out the gauges and switches, and sat in the drivers seat reeeeally wishing I could drive it! But… I’ll have to wait a bit yet. I need to finish school and complete company training first. Then Adam and I will finally hit the road together! More things just keep happening to bring us closer to our new goal – our new adventure.

I asked Adam all cute-like if he’d model his new hard hat for me. He was just a tiny bit more excited that than what his expression says here:

He’s building our tool box and getting some things we’ll need for the road. Zip ties, a funnel, a snippers, a leaf blower (to clean out the reefer trailers, or refrigerated trailers), and a bunch of other stuff. It’s just been fun to start getting these things together.


I wanna driiiiive!


Just hangin' out. So roomy!

Today in class I was given a new truck again, and it’s an International 10-speed. It took some getting used to after driving the 13-speed, figuring out how to keep my foot from slipping off the clutch and realizing the brake and accelerator were much different than the Mack I was in previously. I think I’ve got it down again.

I was also given a new partner today, which made Michael and I pretty sad (we’ve been partners from the start), but my new partner is Nicole and she’s pretty awesome, too, so it’ll be fun. We’ve ridden together before and have actually turned heads – yes, we’re two chicks in a truck. Take a picture! It’s so fun! One guy was shoveling, saw us and stopped, and his head just locked in and followed us as we drove past. We cracked up. Maybe we should wear clown wigs to really make people wonder what the heck is going on!

A few of us drove to Oshkosh today and picked up a load. That was really fun. I think the four of us students that went felt pretty privileged to have that fun experience.

Last but not least – tomorrow I drive a truck nice and quick across a wet, slippery surface and have the brakes locked up on me, forcing me into a near-jacknife skid. Whoa. I’ve been looking forward to this since before I started this course! If it works out, I’ll try to sneak a photo or two to share.

Note to self: pack extra undies. Not cuz I’m scared, but cuz I’m so excited I could pee. ;)

Tonight I love hugs. Just because I do. There’s no reason to have to explain that one.


Adam workin' hard. Our truck comes equipped with a keyboard. High-tech stuff!



Thanks for reading and being a part of my journey!

With love,
Toots Magoots
(Robin Grapa)

A whirlwind of emotions and more trucking


It’s been a whirlwind these past few weeks. Things have been moving right along at school. I’m getting new routes that take me to new places, driving new trucks, trying new backing techniques and practicing old ones, and getting miles on. I actually had kind of a rough day at class today, so I want to write about that a little bit, but I’ll get to that.

In between all the school stuff going on, my mind has been wandering. A lot. I’ve been thinking so much about the sudden, tragic death of my friend Richard, his wife, Meryl, his family and our circle of friends that are all going to be missing him dearly in the coming weeks, months and years. Emotions have been all over the place. I’ve felt sad that he’s gone, mad that he was taken too soon, guilty that I didn’t spend more time with him while he was here, and happy about all the memories I was able to have while he was. For a while all I could do was sit quietly and try to understand. I was trying to make sense of why he was gone, but couldn’t. I was trying to understand what my feelings were. I felt out of place and couldn’t figure out why. Then I started to think about all the time I didn’t have with Richard. I felt bad. I wished I’d have told him he felt like a brother to me, but I didn’t. I wish I’d have planned a backpacking trip with him and Meryl like I’d always wanted to. I just wish I’d have gotten to know him better. I wish I’d have spent more time with him. He was such an amazing person and I wished I’d have just done… more.

Then I started to think about when I hiked the PCT last year. I was pretty upset that I missed the last 60 miles of that trail until I realized… I hiked 2,660 miles of that trail that were absolutely amazing, and that is what I should focus on. Once I realized that, those 60 miles didn’t bother me much any more – they still call to me, but at least I’m not beating myself up about them any more.  I found I could compare this to how I was feeling now. It was an analogy I could understand. It helped me realize that even though I may not have spent as much time with Richard as I wish I had, the times I did spend with him were simply fun, and I’m going to focus on that instead. And just like I hope to hike those last 60 miles some day, I hope to see Richard again, too. I don’t know how much sense that makes, but it somehow made me feel a little more at peace – just reminding me in another way to remember the good times instead of focusing on those that I’ve missed.

…sigh… so with all of that, I might as well transition into my day today. On my drive this afternoon, I felt as though I reverted back a few weeks. My shifting was rushed, I was rushed, and as a result I bumped my tires up onto a curb a couple of times. I didn’t hit any light poles or yield signs (although I might’ve been close!), so it’s not horrible, but I kind of thought I was over that. I guess it’s said that every once in a while you just have a bad day. I suppose I’m thankful that all I did was ride a couple of curbs and nothing worse happened on my “bad day.” I tend to be a little hard on myself, too – so I’m hoping that has something to do with why I’m bummed about a couple of silly errors. And tomorrow I will go to school with a fresh mind reminding myself to stop freakin’ rushing, take my good ol’ time and have a good driving day!

Since the last time I wrote, I enjoyed a week off of driving for Fox Valley Technical College’s spring break. Adam and I went to LaCrosse for a while, which was honestly kind of boring (except for the Rivoli theater!), so we cut that part of our vacation short. We then drove to Phillips to make a short visit with family, then onto Lake Elmo, MN to visit our PCT trail friend, Hoop Dreams! That was a blast. We went out for karaoke, reminisced, and shook our heads at the current experience we were having at a weird little bar in downtown South St. Paul. After that, Adam and I traveled to Upper Michigan where we stayed at a casino for a couple of nights so we could enjoy some drinks together and not have to worry about driving anywhere. We are pretty much living a zero-tolerance lifestyle when it comes to drinking and driving. Did you know that once you have your CDL your legal blood-alcohol content (BAC) is .04%, compared to .08% for those that hold a regular Class D license? Either way, if I’m behind a wheel, my BAC is going to be 0%. It’s a good rule to live by, anyway.


Our latest rig. A Mack 13-speed.

Once back at school, my school partner and I were given another new truck. It’s a Mack sleeper-cab truck with a 13-speed transmission. It was a little weird to drive at first, but I started to really enjoy it once I got the hang of it. The Mack truck feels really tough, and I like that about it.

We also did some blind-side backing in our big Mack truck, which was a little tricky. You basically perform a 90-degree back the other direction, so you can’t see where your trailer is going. In the real world you do everything to avoid a back like this (because they’re dangerous), but in the chance that it’s your only option, you find a spotter and/or get out and look every couple of inches if you have to. I did okay and got signed off on thid new technique, but hope for more practice in the next couple of weeks.

There’s a few more things to try at school, and I look forward to those. Coming up soon I should be hauling a tanker, a double-trailer, maybe driving a new transmission or two, and… SKID PAD! This Wednesday we’re signed up for skid pad training! I’m so excited about that, and I have my extra undies all ready to go. I can’t wait to spin out a tractor and see if I can correct it, and I’m hoping we’re allowed to let it spin a few times for the feel of it… and the fun. I’m sure I’ll be writing about that experience! I feel pretty fortunate that I’m enrolled in a school that has this as part of their driving curriculum. Besides being fun, I think it’s going to be a really important experience to have – to see what it actually feels like for a truck to jackknife while in a controlled environment, so I might be able to steer out of one if it happens unexpectedly down the road.

And holy manoley, I graduate next Friday!

Tonight I love Adam. I know I’ve used him for my “tonight I love” a couple of times before, but it was his 36th birthday yesterday so it’s okay. I feel lucky to still be with my best friend whom I’ve known since 1995. I don’t care if that ages me – that’s a lot of years with a wonderful person, and I rather enjoy bragging about it! :)


A 13-speed shifting pattern.


Mack hood ornament - the bulldog.

Did you know that if the bulldog is gold, the truck is made will all Mack parts (purebred), and if it’s silver it’s made with a mix of parts (mutt). Pretty cool, huh?


Just a few buttons and switches on the dash!

Good-bye to a friend. Way too soon.


We’re going to miss you, Richard.

Over my spring break while Adam and I were in Phillips, I received some terrible news. I came upstairs at my parent’s house after a short run on my mom’s treadmill. Adam came up to me, gently put his hand on my arm and said, “I need to talk to you about something.” I sensed urgency in his voice and immediately knew something was terribly wrong. He led me to the couch and sat me down. He received a call that our friend, Richard, was killed in a car accident.

I felt a lump in my throat and my stomach knotted. I think I just blanked out for a few seconds… or minutes… I don’t even know. So many things went through my head in such a short amount of time. As tears built up in my eyes, my thoughts started to jump all over the place. “What about this, and what about that… and… Meryl… ohmygosh, Meryl… and 4imprint… and legos… and friends… and how? Why? Is this for real? No… noooo…”

For the past few days I’ve thought a LOT about Richard and Meryl. Our mutual friends, work, and in all the places where he will be remembered and missed. The world will miss such an incredibly intelligent, fun-loving guy.

Richard and Meryl.

Richard and Meryl. Love and laughs. <3

What to say… I just don’t know. So I’m using this grieving tactic – a letter. Sometimes you don’t get a chance to say good-bye, so I guess… I hope you are able to read this, my friend.

Dear Richard,
You left us all too soon, my friend, and we already miss you more than we can even put into words. It still doesn’t feel real most of the time. It’s almost like I’m going to head home, meet up with you and Meryl and our group for happy hour and you’re going to tell us all about the accident. We’re going to hug and smile and be glad we still have each other. I think I’m stuck in this strange half-reality. Like the accident happened, but you’re still with us. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been out of town and unable to see anyone or what. When it comes down to it, I sadly know it’s real, as much as I want to wish it all a horrible dream. I wake up each morning thinking about Meryl and wondering how she’s doing, your family, 4imprint, our shared friends, and you.

There are places in my life that will never again be the same without you. Any time I see a Lego, I will remember you. Whenever I play Pictionary, I’ll warm up my drawing skills like you always have. Any time I’m kayaking, tubing or playing shuffleboard, I’ll remember the fun times I had when I shared those times with you.

I always enjoyed your playful personality, and appreciated your sense of adventure and immediate willingness to go along with sometimes crazy ideas. “Hey! Let’s drag our kayaks a mile through the woods so we can paddle this class IV rapids!” or “I know! Let’s ride this air mattress down the river!” (I do believe that one was your idea.) Yeah… I’m going to miss you – especially those times. What I will miss most about you is the sibling-like friendship we had and your genuine, contagious laugh. Your spirit is irreplaceable and unforgettable.

My friend, we all love you, we all miss you, and I know you’ll be watching over us all. We will all do our best to help your love and our friend, Meryl, through her grief and be there for her. For her, and for you.

When we meet again, Richard, maybe I’ll finally let ya’ win at a game of shuffle board (and yeah, I know… you win most of the time). Oh, and the Sambuca’s on me.

Miss you, buddy.
Love, Robin

Tonight I love the people in my life. All of them. You can’t ever say “I love you” too much. Say it as much as you’re able because so much can change so fast.

I love you.

Richard relaxing on a kayak

Richard knew how to relax on a kayak.

Richard and kayaks

Richard proud of his rig. He was able to get all 3 of our kayaks loaded onto his car.


Tubing with Richard

We were all laughing hysterically as our tubes were loosing air. This is one of my favorite memories with Richard.

Until we meet again... Good bye, our good friend.

Until we meet again… Good bye, our good friend.

A few new things and a few mistakes.

Wow, it seems like I have something to write every day lately. There’s so much that happens, and I want to record it so I can remember it all, and it’s fun to share. Today I had some more new experiences at school – mostly good with a few things I’m not so proud of. But as always, they were all great learning experiences.

First of all, right away in the morning I got onto our practice range and worked on getting the truck rolling from a stop without killing the engine. I killed it almost every time. My partner has told me quite often that I’m over-thinking it, so frustrated with my lack of progress, I decided to just hit the road and not think too hard about it. Guess what happened once I got onto the road? I did just fine. I didn’t even come that close to killing it even one time all day. I was just over-thinking it. That was kind of relief!

New stuff! A real loading dock! The trailer that my partner and I have been hauling is loaded and heavy. We found out today that it is loaded with reams of paper, and that the main building on campus needed a palette of that paper. Michael (my partner) and I got into the truck with instructor Brian and head over to the main building where there is a real truck loading dock. I was driving, so we pulled in and I set up, not perfectly straight, and started to back the truck in towards the door behind me. It was a pretty tight space, or at least that’s the way it seemed to me! Brian spotted me and helped me get the trailer in position. It took a few short pull-ups, but I eventually got it. Brian showed us how the dock worked from the inside and pulled the palette of paper off with a forklift, re-secured the load and then we head back out to the street.

More new stuff! A scale! Next we drove to a local company that allows Fox Valley Tech to use their scale, and I pulled in and around to get set up to drive up onto the scale. I was a bit freaked out. First of all, I didn’t get super straight to pull onto the scale, and this thing was off the ground a couple of feet, dropping off on the edges. If I didn’t get onto it straight, the wheels of my rig could easily slip over the edge. Eeek! That would be bad! Thankfully that didn’t happen (I didn’t want to leave you in suspense there!). We inched our way onto the scale and weighed the steer axle, pulled ahead a little more and weighed the drive axles, then pulled through even more and weighed the trailer axles. They were all within weight, but pretty close to the max. The drive axle has to be under 12,000 pounds, and the two other axles can’t be over 34,000, totaling 80,000 pounds. As it turns out, we’ve been pulling close to that in total weight. No wonder it’s been a little tough to get ol’ Erma (our truck was given this as her name today) up to speed on the highway!

One more new thing! Pulling into a truck stop! After the loading dock and the scale we drove around for a while, taking some turns in new territory where my new confidence was tested and I made a few errors, which I’ll mention in a sec. But first we stopped at a truck stop so Michael and I could switch spots (up to this point he was riding in the back of the sleeper cab and our instructor was in the passenger seat while I drove). I got to pull into a real truck stop and park next to all the other big rigs! That felt kind of cool. We went in to use the bathroom, then head back out. Michael drove back to school from there.

So I did mess a few things up today, and I felt pretty dumb about them. There were two incidents in particular that would’ve failed me on my CDL test. The first one… get this. A gosh-for-saken freakin’ snowbank. Thankfully I didn’t get stuck. Here is where my new-found confidence was kicking me in the butt. It was a new area that I was unfamiliar with, and I took the corner a bit too fast (because I was feeling confident) and clipped it too short. My trailer tires put a pretty good divet into that snowbank. I just thought, “oh, shoot.” I let myself laugh about it a little bit, but only because it was a snowbank. I was reminded that there could always be something under that snow, like a fire hydrant or something. Lesson learned – I’ll take it slower when I’m driving in a new area to be sure I’m taking my time getting around new corners. I think it’s good to take things lightly, but I have to always remember there’s a pretty serious side to all of this, too.

The other flub-up was a little scarier. I took a right turn and had to move over three lanes to get into a left turn lane for the very next intersection. There was a lot of traffic and I wasn’t moving fast, so cars were zipping around me to my left in the lane I needed to merge into. I flipped on my left turn signal, and three of four cars zoomed past as I watched my intersection up ahead closing in on me. The fourth car looked as though he was slowing to let me in, so I started to move left only to see him swerve to the left. I don’t know if he sped up, I slowed down, or I misjudged where he was, but I had to move back into my lane, and then he was afraid to pass me (for good reason), forcing me to slow to a crawl to get moved over so I could make my turn (you can’t miss turns in a truck, because you never know if that route you didn’t plan to go on isn’t a truck route or maybe has a low clearance or something). After that car got around me, two other semi trucks came up behind me and I was able to squeak in behind a big FedEx truck just in time to get into my turn lane. Whew. That freaked me out, and I felt pretty stupid about it. Again, I’m very thankful nothing happened and that I was able to slow down to get into my turn lane without causing too much of a fuss in traffic, but a big ‘sorry’ goes out to the guy who probably shat himself when I tried to merge into his car!

Oy. Maybe I should’ve mentioned the good, fun and new things at the end of this entry! I’ll end on a good note. The rest of my driving today seemed to go pretty well. There were a few other typical rookie things, like rushing downshifting and causing me to loose focus for a moment, but all in all I had a great day – even with the two embarrassing mistakes. I learned that it’s good to have confidence, but that certainly doesn’t mean I can let my guard down for even a split second. I still need to take things easy, stay in complete control and be on high alert at all times. My first snowbank experience a few weeks ago ended up being a really important thing to happen to me, and I’m sure these couple of things are, too. They’re not fun to experience, but again… thank God nothing bad happened from them. Thank God they were there for me just to learn from. I just wish I could buy that poor dude a new pair of skivvies!

Tonight I love having so much to talk to Adam about that it’s hard for us to get to sleep at night. This whole truckin’ thing is bringing us a lot closer.

Adam’s first day and my leaky air

Adam’s first day of work!

Adam started working at V&S Midwest Carriers today, where we are going to eventually be team driving together. He sent me a text this morning saying he felt awesome, which means that so far things are going really well! It sounds like all the people he met are pretty much awesome, and that’s a really big deal. We’re feeling like this is going to be a really nice company to work for.

He took his drug test, filled out some paperwork, was shown how to drive around a forklift (I’m jealous!), and even got into a truck with a trainer and rocked a road test! It’s been two years since he’s driven a big truck, but it sounds like it came right back to him. I can’t wait to get in the truck with him so he can teach me a few things!

He also head up to Green Bay to get his TWIC card (Transportation Worker Identification Credential), which has something to do with entering ship yards or something. There are so many cards, endorsements and things we need to have to drive a truck. It’s kind of crazy! But I suppose… all of these things make sure we’re all safe and legal.

Now he’s got a couple of days of orientation to go through, videos to watch, and then he’ll be driving with a trainer for the last couple of days this week. He’s really getting this ball rolling! Each day it sinks in a little more that we’re still on track with our plan, and it’s actually happening!

My day – leaking air and a heavy trailer

My day was a little interesting today. In fact, it was kind of a cluster. My partner and I were excited to be thrown at yet another new challenge – a longer trailer (53′), loaded with 45,000 pounds. We got the trailer coupled to our big ol’ sleeper tractor and did the air brakes test. Something was wrong. We had a leaking service brake line. We uncoupled and dropped the truck into the diesel shop for a quick repair. We power-washed our old truck while we waited for the fix, got the truck back and recoupled.

The service line leak was fixed, but our air brakes test failed again. Something else was leaking air. Oy. Instructor Brian jumped in and tried to diagnose the problem, and we were soon back at the diesel shop. The mechanic crawled underneath the truck with a blow torch and the hissing sound of escaping air stopped. Our suspension dump was frozen open. The suspension dump drops air so the tractor will lower itself, making it easier to back under a trailer. By the time this was all done it was lunch time and Mike and I had zero miles for the day. Even though I was antsy to get out with our new trailer, these were great learning experiences too.

After lunch I finally got on the road. Wow, what a different feeling it was to drive that heavy trailer! The longer length didn’t bother me too much, but getting moving from a stop and trying to get up to highway speed was a little rough for me. I was totally the chick truck driver on Hwy 41 south going 45 mph for about a mile because I bumped it up to 10th gear too soon! I was pushing the accelerator to the floor and she just wasn’t goin’ for me! Haha! Just call me Granny Toots the trucker!

I obviously need more practice with this new combo of tractor/trailer and I should get more time on the road with it tomorrow. I also need to work on my starts from a stop at intersections. I’m a little embarrassed about this, to be totally honest. I keep getting so close to killing the engine when I try to get rolling from a stop. Isn’t this day 1 stuff? Ugh… maybe I’ll work on that first tomorrow. I’m guessing it’s a clutch-brake timing thing that I need to figure out.

Tonight I love Adam’s happy first day of work! :)

Thanks for reading and being a part of my journey!

With love,
Toots Magoots
(Robin Grapa)

New things and a job.

The week before I passed my test and got my CDL, Adam and I went to visit a local trucking company. We were interested in working for them and they invited us to stop in to meet them. We already had a good feeling about this. Instead of going over Adam’s rollover accident that happened a year ago over the phone with a recruiter that’s probably already talked to a hundred potential drivers that day, we just drove to this place and walked in. We sat down with the recruiter and talked with him about their company, Adam’s accident, the hike last year, and our excitement to start team driving. The discussion was very laid back and comfortable. The conversation quickly turned over to the orientation and training schedule, required physical and drug tests, and how we’d transition into a full-on team. But it wasn’t just “this is how we do things here.” It was more like, “when you’re ready to start, this is what you’re going to be doing.” As in… we have a job if we want it. This was all before I even had my license!

When Adam and I left, we talked about it and agreed pretty quickly that this would be a great way for us to start out. We’d be training separately for a while, which is pretty standard for any trucking company (except for Covenant, who was going to let Adam train me), but we were okay with that. It sounds like we’ll start out as kind of like a driver and a half, so we won’t be running super-hard for our first runs together. It sounded like a nice way to get our feet wet and get a feel for the industry, this company, and how things are done – all at a nice pace. Eventually we’d be making week-long runs together, pushing pretty hard, but being home on weekends. We decided to go for it. We just have a really good feeling about this place and are excited to start. So excited, in fact, that Adam is starting tomorrow!

We figured since we have to take the company training anyway, he could start out working right away instead of paying for the refresher course, and then when I’m ready to start (which will be the Monday after I graduate, April 7th), he’ll be working regularly until I’m through the orientation and training. Then we’ll be able to hit the road together as a team in our own truck.

It seems like every week there’s some huge, new step we are taking toward reaching this goal. It’s pretty fast-paced, but it’s making the whole process fun as it moves right along. It’s a fun way to do things if you’re sometimes impatient, or the type that likes quick results. This career has been feeding those parts of my personality, and I think that’s one of the reason I’m enjoying it so much. I remember thinking, “I’m not ready to drive on the road. It’ll probably be another couple of days before I do.” That same day I was driving on the road. “I probably won’t get my CDL until week eight.” Last week was my 6th week when I passed. I love this. I didn’t have to do the whole “oh gosh, we have to send out handfuls of cover letters and resumes, find someone that might be interested in maybe hiring us, go through tiers of nerve wracking interviews, compete with all the other qualified individuals while trying to convince we’re somehow better, speak of our strengths and weaknesses, mention our attention to detail and that we’re ‘go-getters,’ along all the other hoopla that we’re going have to remember to throw at an interviewer with a nervous smile on our face hoping like hell they’ll hire us.” Nope. An online application, a quick meeting with the recruiter, a scheduled date and we’re getting this party started. This is pretty exciting stuff!

So Adam will be getting our job rolling – the big stuff – while I continue on my last five weeks at school. I’ve had people ask, “so can you just quit school and go get a job now that you have your CDL?” The answer is yes, but quitting has never once crossed my mind. They have a lot more they are going to teach us, a lot more experiences to throw at us, and graduating is a pretty big deal. And besides, I’m REALLY enjoying school. I love the instructors, my fellow students and the challenges and learning experiences I’m able to have in this controlled environment. I’m going to take advantage of this while I can, and I know I’m going to miss it and all the people I’ve met when it’s done.

So with that… what’s new at school? Well, get this – I said they move quick. I got my CDL last Tuesday, and my partner got his Wednesday. We’re the first team in our group to have our CDLs, so on Thursday morning at dispatch we were assigned to a new truck. It’s a sleeper cab. That probably adds on about six to eight feet in length to an already pretty darn long vehicle. That’s new, big step. But wait. Then they gave us a new trailer, too. It’s the same 48′ trailer we’re used to, but it’s loaded. That’s another new thing. It changes the way it feels when driving, especially accelerating. Since we were in a new tractor, an instructor had to take each of us out on a road run to check us onto our current approved routes. While we did that, we were also introduced to the button-hook turn. Another new thing!


The big sleeper-cab truck.

I’ll try to explain the button-hook turn – especially because it looks kind of weird, so if you see a truck doing this you’ll know why. When you have to make a right turn on a corner that is really squared-off, sharp, or even greater than a 90-degree angle with a semi, just taking a long, wide turn might not be enough. What you have to do is pull the truck from the right lane into the left lane just before the intersection as you approach the turn. At this point you’re taking up both lanes, keeping any traffic from being able to sneak in between you and the curb of the turn. The back of the trailer is close to the right curb, and the tractor is taking up the left lane. When I did my first couple, I was taking them very slow, so all the traffic behind me had to wait at least a full light to get through (sorry, I’m learning!).

I kind of laughed, because the back of my trailer still says, “Student Driver” on it, and I’m sure everyone thought I was just royally screwing something up as I sat there with my huge vehicle sitting there through an entire red light, diagonally taking up the entire intersection while my instructor is pointing at things and explaining to me how to properly navigate the turn. I can’t help it… that’s funny. For me… maybe not for you if you were behind me trying to get back to work from lunch. Sorry… ;)

Anyway, once you have the tractor and trailer diagonal, taking up both the left and right lane, with the right turn signal on, you pull up and start turning really wide until you can clear the median in front of you, all while watching the trailer tires to make sure they aren’t riding up over a curb, taking out a light pole, and that no cars are trying to squeeze in next to you. I don’t know if I explained that very well… it’s kind of hard to describe in words. Sometimes we just have to do weird things to get where we need to be, so if you see a semi truck going really slowly and being weird, please just hang back a minute and let them finish their thing. We’re just trying to not hit you or anything around us. :)

I don’t know what’s in store for me this week, but there’s a bunch of other CDL tests going on in our group, so I imagine my partner and I will be doing a lot of driving with each other and other Instructor Permit holders. I’m excited to get out there, drive more and get more experience. I already tried doing some backing with the bigger tractor and it went pretty well. I got a couple with no problem, so I know it can be done, at least.


Feeding the beast.

Tonight I love chicken wingies. I know that’s totally unrelated to what I wrote about, but I don’t care. They’re delicious and I love them. And I had some for dinner. Yum!