New Forks On The Road

Port St.Lucie, Florida

MacGyver’s up a ladder, which is positioned on the catwalk leaning against the tractor, swearing. He’s removing the unused Qualcomm bracket. The bolts are rusted in place.

To quote a friend of ours “if you’re not driving the truck, you’re working on it.”

While some days the work is not easy, it is made easier by the tropical eco-zone that we call home. Our landlady keeps her canal-front lot in a lush, long-forgotten by urbanization, natural state.

Vultures look down on us in the morning, it’s a little unnerving, from the tops of the old growth oak trees.  Squirrels and raccoons scamper up and down the palm, bougainvillea, bamboo, lychee nut and mango trees. The thick green canopy is reminiscent of a retreat in Costa Rica blocking out all signs of other life.

Today is special. While I was cleaning the tractor in the driveway, I heard rustling in the jungle, but I couldn’t see anything. The first thing I thought, being a city slicker, it was a Florida panther, then I thought maybe an alligator, so I did what any good New Yorker would do… I went inside.

New Forks On The RoadA half hour later, in the kitchen, I heard honking, but not a car. I decided to peek out the window and there he was in his luminous sapphire splendour, nibbling at the squirrel and bird feed. Our peacock. We haven’t seen a peacock here in more than a year.

Once we were here in mating season and four peacocks were chasing each other around the house, each trying to drive the others off his territory. We ran around the house watching them through all the windows like we were in the zoo.

Yesterday when I was walking around the fake lake up the road, across from the WalMart and the McDonald’s there were two giant scarlett-crowned Sand Cranes, standing next to the sidewalk, sizing me up as I wandered by.

The setting makes the month of unpaid, but necessary small business owner-work tolerable. With MacGyver outside banging around on the truck, I am organizing the numbers for our tax return to answer the annual question: How did we do? 2011 ended well despite two carrier switches, Forward Air to FedEx Custom Critical to Landstar.

Miles: 131,552 ALL miles. Paid, deadhead, personal, and miles we should have been paid for but weren’t when two loads canceled. Most team truckers are snickering, because this is the average mileage of a solo driver. The Gentlemen — Slacker — Trucker title is still ours. But we’ve found the secret to this business. Ease up on the hammer to keep money rather than spend it.

Fuel Cost: 47-cents per mile on diesel. Most Owner/Operators spend between 55 and 60-cents per mile.

Average speed: 62 mph at Forward Air, 58 mph at FDCC and Landstar.

Tires: Steer (front) tires replaced at 235,000 miles with another set of low-rolling resistant Michelin XZA3+. Many truckers replace steer tires at 150,000 miles. Driving slower is easier on the parts and saves money.

Oil: Using the OPS bypass system we have 225,000 miles on our engine oil. We take an oil sample every 25,000 miles, replace the filter and top up the oil with one gallon of Shell Rotella Synthetic. If the sample comes back clean from the lab, we continue on our merry way. The other method is changing the 11 gallons oil every 15,000 miles, which is expensive, about $225 each time, and we feel, wasteful.

While I am adding up the expenses for the accountant, I am pretty happy with what I’m seeing. We spent big. Our BoseRide driver seat was $6,000 and the On-Spot automatic tire chains were $5,100, which I will write about later this month. The mechanics at the Southern US truck stops have been asking us if the automatic tire chain sign on the back of Black Beauty is a joke.

We also saved money. The most important number to me is our truck “payment.” We used our savings to buy Black Beauty, a 2007 Volvo 780. We added the Auxiliary Power Unit, did a few upgrades, including a large repair, three months after the purchase, that no one spotted in the $500 worth of pre-purchase inspections that we paid for. To that total, I added interest and rounded up, creating a $90,000, three-year loan to repay our savings so that in 2014 we will have money towards our next truck. Two years into our loan, we are, in bank talk, current. It’s easy to let repaying savings slide because no bill comes every month.

We have big plans for 2012. So far this year we have taken the mandatory Landstar business course for new Owner Operators, had our truck inspected, Landstar requires an inspection every 120 days.

We have added two endorsements to our Commercial Drivers License, which is already Hazardous Materials rated. We can now drive tankers and doubles and triples. The tanker endorsement, which is required as of July 2011 for pulling liquid totes, more than 119 gallons each with an aggregate capacity over 1,000 gallons, filled or empty, inside the dry box or on a flatbed. And the doubles and triples, which I am not keen on pulling because it is much harder to find parking for a vehicle, which bends in three or four places. We did it to keep our options open. And this past weekend we were licensed to ride motorcycles, a vital step, particularly for me who has never driven a motorcycle — MacGyver had me on the back of his motorcycle on our second date, our first date he took me flying in a Cessna single engine plane — because this is where our 2012 plans start.

We are preparing to carry a Vespa scooter on the tractor. MacGyver has been wearing his Michelangelo hat designing a “garage” for the back of the tractor. This is not a simple box, we need a system to hold the scooter during travel and to raise and lower it to the ground. We do not want to change our wheelbase, the distance between the center of the steer tires and the mid-point between the front and rear drive axles because we want to be able to take Canadian freight and the maximum allowed wheelbase in Canada is 244 inches. There are weight and height considerations in carrying the Vespa and garage. We will have to move the Fifth Wheel back to accommodate the box, there will be fuel efficiency issues, and we want to minimize the effect on our 80,000 pound gross vehicle weight rating.

We need to put fenders on the drive tires, the first big problem, we encountered. The mounting position of the fenders will depend on the position of the Fifth Wheel and we’re not sure about that yet. That was pushed to the bottom of the list.

He removed the batwings from the tractor to accommodate the box, remounted the back up lights the tractor marker lights and then mounted my birthday bling. Turns out Black Beauty and I have the same birthday, really, her engine is stamped as proof. She is a little younger than me in people years. Her six years at 550,000 miles makes her about 47. Most truck owners expect her to have a working life span of about 800,000 miles. But she is aging gracefully under MacGyver’s watchful eye. He pampers her. Only the best of everything because we want the option to keep her on the road for 1.2 million miles.

MacGyver bought us aerodynamic hood mirrors, with their sleek, sexy, matte black arms and an in-your-face rectangular mirror to help us old broads continue to turn heads.

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