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Of all the world's professions, truck driving is not counted among the most highly-respected. Truck drivers are often demeaned as uneducated and lazy. All they do is drive a truck all day; how hard could that be, right?
It's a lot more difficult than it looks, and those who look down their noses at the profession might find themselves hard pressed to keep up if they ever had to go even a short distance in a big rig. We could talk about the challenges of operating an 18-wheel semi truck hauling 40 tons of freight through all imaginable weather conditions — rain, wind, snow, sleet, fog — over mountains and through valleys and across rivers all over the country. We could talk about endless road hazards and poorly maintained highways and bridges, tight turns on narrow roads, and always — always — innumerable unsafe drivers to avoid (you know, those same idiots you scream at from behind the wheel of your Toyota Prius; truck drivers have to deal with them all day, every day).
What about idling restrictions, poor food options, increasing diesel costs, belligerent DOT officers, overnight hauls, overflowing rest areas where you fight for limited spaces, life on the road away from family and friends for weeks or months at a time … the list of difficulties goes on. And a trucker has to cope with all that while trying to stay accident-free for hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of miles.
Let's set all that easy stuff aside and talk about just one thing: shifting. That's right...as in shifting from one gear to the next.
To anyone who maligns the truck driving profession, my first question is, "Can you even drive a stick shift?" If you answered, "no," that's where this conversation ends. I'm not even going to waste my time. (I wasn't able to find any figures on what percentage of drivers in the US are capable of driving a stick, but I did discover that in 2011, only 5.8 percent of passenger vehicles sold in the US had manual transmissions.)
Now, suppose you said, "yes." We can continue talking. Now, you'll probably tell me that the first car you learned to drive during your sophomore year of high school had a stick shift and you had to manage all of four gears. OK, so how would you feel about driving that car for 10 hours straight? Think that might wear down your wrist, and maybe leave your calves kinda sore? What if there weren't four gears, but 16, each so close in ratio to the last that pulling through an intersection could easily require five or six shifts? Now, what if in order to manage all those gears, you needed two sticks? Oh, and we'll take away your power steering for good measure.
I probably lost you at two sticks.
When you depress the clutch, you're going to have to shift both of those sticks pretty often and quite quickly so as not to lose speed. You see, one is for your main transmission and the other is for your auxiliary. Here's how that works. From a stop, put both the main and the auxiliary in the first gear. As you increase speed, shift the auxiliary gear once, twice, three times into fourth gear. You may be going about 20 mph at this point if you're not hauling anything. Now, shift your main gear into second, and your auxiliary back into first. Upshift the auxiliary three times into fourth. Then shift your main into third and the auxiliary back into first, etc. And do all that while, you know, steering and accelerating and braking and changing lanes and not running into or over anything you shouldn't. Finally, at any point when you need to decelerate, try remembering that procedure in reverse as you downshift. Got it? Good luck!
I'll grant you that as technology has advanced, contemporary truck drivers enjoy a lot more of the creature comforts the rest of us have come to expect in our four-wheelers. Most only have one stick, and some are even automatic. But that doesn't mean it's easy.
I know most of the people reading this article don't demean truck drivers, so this isn't actually directed at "you," of course. But, I think people in general wouldn't be so quick to judge if they understood more about the skills it takes. I'll leave you with a great video of an old veteran taking his 1955 Kenworth 523 Bullnose for a farewell run before selling it out of necessity. You can feel his love for his "Midnight Flyer," and you have to respect his deftness walking the sticks. (And don't miss the demonstration of his three gears for reverse!)